President Donald Trump headed to New Hampshire last week to unveil his administration's plan to battle the opioid crisis. The plan was light on specifics, except for one point that earned a good amount of presidential attention.
The problem is, that one point — getting tough on criminal prosecutions against so-called drug "kingpins," including possible death penalties for big-time dealers — is unlikely to work in the way the president intends.
We know because we've already tried this get-tough approach for drug crimes, locking up thousands and thousands of Americans for relatively minor drug offenses. It didn't work well. It's unlikely to work any better against the opioid scourge.
In the meantime, programs that could make a real difference in the nation's battle against opioids got short shrift in the president's proposal. Ideas to take steps to reduce the demand for opioids were mentioned almost in passing in Trump's remarks, with little evidence that anyone has thought to work out the sticky details.
The plan also is vague about how it would expand addiction treatment, although it does offer a goal of increasing access to "evidence-based addiction treatment" in every state, particularly for members of the military, veterans and their families and people leaving jail or prison.
Of course, the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act has had the result of increasing access to addiction treatment for many Americans. (In fact, Medicaid covers about 38 percent of people with an opioid addiction, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.) Trump, of course, has worked hard to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and it's not clear how that goal would go along with attempts to expand treatment.
But Trump apparently hasn't spent much time thinking about any of that (although it is good that he's thinking about the opioid crisis at all, we guess). No, it was clear from his remarks this week that what fired his imagination was the idea that he could follow the lead of the strongmen who run counties such as China or Indonesia — countries where drug dealers occasionally are executed.
Trump said he had spoken to leaders of Asian countries “where they don’t play games,” an apparent reference to conversations he has described having with President Xi Jinping of China and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. The implication is that those countries have less of a drug problem because of the death penalty.
The problem here (and, yes, we know people don't care about this sort of thing anymore) is that it's not true. In Singapore, for example, which executed eight people for drug trafficking from 2015 to 2017, seizures of methamphetamine and cannabis increased in 2016 over the previous year, with heroin seizures remaining stable, according to the country's narcotics bureau.
Again, we guess we should be grateful that the issue is at least on Trump's radar, as well it should be: Drug overdoses killed about 64,000 people in the United States in 2016, according to initial estimates from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdoses have become the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.
But the way to frighten drug traffickers is not by threatening to get tough with prosecutions. You want to put a scare into those people? Here's how to do it: Dry up the demand across the market by reducing opioid prescriptions and developing other options for chronic pain. And make sure that addicted Americans can access treatment options.
Congress recently allocated $6 billion for the next two years to deal with the opioid crisis. It's not enough, of course, but it's a start. It will help, of course, if we choose to spend the money on programs that actually will make a difference to loosen the grip of opioid addiction in the United States instead of indulging the president's increasingly worrisome fascination with autocrats.
— Albany Democrat-Herald