The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Richard Nixon went to war on marijuana. Donald Trump is making the same mistake with opioids.

And this time, the mistake will be deadlier.

President Trump speaks about his plan to combat opioid drug addiction at Manchester Community College on March 19 in Manchester, N.H. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Since President Trump entered office more than a year ago, his administration has addressed the opioid epidemic with typical rhetorical flourish. The president has publicly supported the death penalty for drug dealers, and earlier this month, Surgeon General Jerome Adams released an advisory requesting that more Americans carry the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, equating it to knowing CPR.

But what the administration hasn’t been able to do is actually stem the overdose tide.

More than 64,000 Americans died of accidental drug overdoses in 2016, or roughly 175 a day. This is more than the number of people who die annually from breast cancer, or the total number of American casualties in the Vietnam War. In response, last year, Trump convened the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis to tackle this problem. But rather than using the group’s suggestions to halt this deadly epidemic, the president publicly mocked and rejected its findings while pushing for a more punitive approach.

Trump is hardly the first president to ignore the results of an administration-organized drug commission in favor of a “lock ’em up” style. In terms of policy, Trump is walking the same path President Richard M. Nixon blazed before him, though Nixon was focused on marijuana. But the effects of Trump’s dismissal are far deadlier than Nixon’s, since, without effective and well-funded treatment and prevention measures, overdose deaths are expected to climb. He may be mirroring Nixon’s actions now, but if Trump truly wants to stop this epidemic and save tens of thousands of lives, he needs to do what Nixon didn’t: listen to his commission’s advice.

Last month, the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis would have celebrated its first anniversary — if it still existed. The advisory group was charged with “obtaining advice and recommendations for the President” to improve the federal government’s response to overdose deaths. Housed within the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP, the commission was chaired by Trump’s onetime rival for the Republican nomination, Chris Christie, and was given 90 days to find workable solutions to America’s ongoing opioid crisis.

You’d be forgiven if you’re not entirely clear what happened to their work. Much of the commission’s tenure was overshadowed by scandals, including the withdrawal of Trump’s nominee to lead the ONDCP, Pennsylvania congressman Tom Marino, and the dismissal of Taylor Weyeneth, a 24-year-old who briefly served as the ONDCP’s deputy chief of staff.

Still, the commission was able to submit two reports that contained numerous policy suggestions. In its interim report released in July, the commission urged Trump to declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency, releasing millions in federal funds. (This did not happen — Trump instead declared it a “public health emergency,” which meant only $57,000 in aid.) In its final report, released in November, the commission noted that more assistance was needed, including block grants for treatment and prevention, a multimedia anti-drug campaign, an effectively regulated health-insurance industry and improved drug courts.

But Trump rejected the commission’s findings out of hand. Even as overdose deaths rose, the president backed cuts to offices working to control the epidemic and publicly dismissed the commission’s work. At a White House summit on opioid abuse last month, Trump talked tough, threatening dealers with the “ultimate penalty” — death — and said, “If you want to be weak and you want to talk about just blue ribbon committees, that’s not the answer.”

It’s not clear why Trump found the commission’s findings so unsatisfying, but it presents a problem for those trying to curb overdose deaths. When presidents ignore public health reports and focus on punishing users and dealers instead, the social cost of the drug war rises steadily. We know this because we’ve seen it before: Something similar happened more than 40 years ago, when Nixon launched his battle against marijuana.

Nixon organized the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, led by Raymond Shafer, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, in 1970. Formed by the Controlled Substances Act, which also created the five-schedule system for categorizing drugs, the Shafer Commission had a two-year mandate to study the scope and breadth of marijuana use in the United States. Nixon hoped the commission would connect cannabis to the troubles of the time — adolescent rebellion, social turmoil, widespread social protest and “deviant” behavior — warranting marijuana’s placement in Schedule I, the strictest and most highly punishable level of control.

But the commission found the opposite. After two years of interviews, surveys and research, the Shafer Commission declared that the drug had no links to criminal behavior and that marijuana smokers were no different than average Americans. Rather than supporting the drug’s illegality, the group recommended that cannabis be decriminalized nationwide and that federal resources be devoted to tackling the deadly heroin epidemic plaguing the country in the 1960s and ’70s.

These findings infuriated Nixon, and prompted a vindictive response. Shafer had hoped for a federal judgeship after the commission finished its work, but Nixon refused to nominate him. Nixon also publicly dismissed the group’s findings, arguing that he opposed “the legalization of marijuana and that includes sale, possession, and use.” As a result, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug today, which has led to mounting problems. The ACLU declares that 40 years of marijuana criminalization has destroyed families, undermined public health and incarcerated millions, all while costing the federal government billions and doing little to reduce national use.

Four decades later, however, we seem to finally be taking the Shafer Commission’s recommendations to heart. A majority of Americans believe that marijuana possession shouldn’t be a criminal offense, and cities and states across the country are decriminalizing or legalizing pot. Many defend these shifts in the same language once used by the commission — that cannabis users are not criminals and that other drugs cause much more harm. Some locales are even expunging records of previous cannabis crimes as a means to make amends for decades of incarceration.

But it took decades to learn these lessons from the past, and with the opioid crisis, we don’t have 40 years. While marijuana has resulted in no reported deaths, opioid overdoses are killing more than 60,000 people annually. Ignoring the White House Commission’s recommendations in favor of “get tough” promises will not change this fact.

Instead, Trump needs to learn from past mistakes, and quickly. Presidents can decry their commissions. They can rant and rail against their findings. But ultimately, drug crises need to be addressed, and the White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis offered potential solutions. Ignoring them, like Nixon ignored the Shafer Commission, will not solve America’s drug problem, and will only slow the national response needed to save people’s lives.

His commission may be over, but Trump can still learn from Nixon’s mistakes. If the president truly wants to tackle the opioid crisis, he needs to listen to that “blue ribbon commission” he’s disparaging. Tens of thousands of American lives are at stake.