The war on drugs ex­plains the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY DANIELLE ALLEN Danielle Allen is a po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and a con­tribut­ing colum­nist for The Post.

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. Mar­i­juana has been le­gal­ized there. Use and mod­est pos­ses­sion of 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.

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