Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that marijuana has been legalized in Portugal. The column has been updated.
What’s the standard line on President Trump these days? That he’s an erratic creature of no fixed commitments and no stable policy objectives? Not so fast. In fact, Trump’s entire administration can be understood through the lens of his weird, consistent, unwavering adherence to a 1980s concept of the War on Drugs.
This adherence unifies his policy actions: not only the appointment of drug-war hard-liner Jeff Sessions as attorney general but also his approach to immigration and “the wall,” his calls for a revival of “stop and frisk” and “law and order” policies, key features of the Republican House health-care bill, the bromances with Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin, and even the initial proposal to defund the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
After descending that Trump Tower escalator in July 2015, Trump made headlines when he kicked off his campaign by proclaiming that Mexico was sending us “rapists.” Less noted has been that he began his list of woes coming from the South by castigating Mexican immigrants for “bringing drugs.” Already in that speech the solution he offered to this caricatured problem was “the wall.” Almost two years later, the wall is still meant to solve the problem of drugs, as in this tweet from April: “If the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be!”
Trump’s well-received joint address to Congress in February also explained his desire to limit immigration by focusing on drugs: “We’ve defended the borders of other nations while leaving our own borders wide open for anyone to cross and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate.”
No surprise, then, that Sessions has been working steadily, since his confirmation, to restore the building blocks of the War on Drugs that political leaders from both parties have been quietly removing for the past five years. He has ordered a review of federal policies on state legalization of marijuana and appears to be seeking an end to the policy of federal non-interference with the cascade of legalization efforts. He has ordered a review of consent decrees, whose purpose is to spur police reform, and sought to delay the implementation of Baltimore’s. He has recently handed down guidance requiring federal prosecutors to seek the stiffest possible sentences available for drug offenses.
To support these efforts, Trump has proposed hiring 10,000 immigration officers and 5,000 Border Patrol agents and beefing up support for police departments. According to the White House website, “The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration” for a country that “needs more law enforcement.”
The Obama administration had begun to drive toward replacing criminal-justice strategies for drug control with public-health strategies. It wasn’t whistling in the dark but following, at least in part, the innovative model of drug control pioneered by Portugal. Use and modest possession of marijuana and other drugs have been decriminalized, but large-scale trafficking is still criminal. The criminal-justice system focuses on those large-scale traffickers, while public-health strategies and harm-reduction techniques pinpoint users and low-level participants in the drug economy. Adolescent drug use is down, the percentage of users seeking treatment is up, and Portugal is interdicting increased quantities of illegal narcotics.
Countries across Central and South America would like to follow Portugal and transition from a criminal-justice paradigm to an individual and public-health paradigm for drug control. They have advocated for this change at the United Nations but have been blocked by Putin’s Russia. Indeed, Putin is one of the world’s most steadfast advocates for the 1980s War on Drugs concept.
Of course, Trump has expressed a strange affinity for Putin and also for Duterte, the president of the Philippines. Duterte has called for the “slaughter” of the Philippines’ estimated 3 million addicts. The death toll from extrajudicial killings that he seems to have sparked has already reached into the thousands. The response from the United States? Trump praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem” and invited him to the White House.
Yet Trump’s initial budget plan involved proposing nearly complete defunding of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which was founded by congressional legislation in 1988. How does that square?
The Obama administration deployed that office to “restore balance” to U.S. drug-control efforts, increasing emphasis on treatment, prevention and diversion programs, and fostering a move toward a health-based strategy. The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and requirements that insurers support mental-health and addiction treatment undergirded this effort, supporting the emergence of programs designed to divert low-level drug offenders out of the criminal-justice system and into treatment. This has made for the very promising beginnings of a health-based approach to drug control.
The Trump administration has painted a bull’s eye on this new policy strategy and is firing away. While the White House has backed off defunding the Office of National Drug Control Policy, it continues to pursue the reversal of the Medicaid expansion. The administration appears to think narcotics control can be achieved entirely through the tools of criminal justice.
But we tried that in the 1980s, the decade of “Miami Vice,” the era when the Los Angeles police chief, Daryl Gates, could testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot.” We know where that story ends: with increased incarceration, further degradation of urban neighborhoods, no durable change in rates of drug use and a failure to address addiction.
So, yes, Trump has a vision, and he’s moving steadily toward it, wrongheaded though it is, dragging us along with him, as if into a wall.