Pros­e­cu­tion claim falls short

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - NEWS - AMY SHER­MAN Amy Sher­man is a re­porter for Poli­ The Jour­nal Sen­tinel’s Poli­tiFact Wis­con­sin is part of the Poli­tiFact net­work.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump took a swipe at for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama as he re­newed his pledge to tackle the opi­oid epi­demic, which claims the lives of tens of thou­sands of peo­ple a year.

Trump said that opi­oid over­dose deaths have nearly quadru­pled since 1999, speak­ing af­ter a brief­ing on the is­sue.

But while deaths soared, Trump said over­all drug prose­cu­tions de­clined in re­cent years — a trend Trump vowed to re­verse.

“We’re go­ing to be bring­ing them up and bring­ing them up rapidly,” he said Aug. 8. “At the end of 2016, there were 23% fewer than in 2011. So they looked at this scourge, and they let it go by, and we’re not let­ting it go by.”

We found that Trump is cor­rect that fed­eral drug prose­cu­tions de­clined from 2011 to 2016 un­der Obama, but he lacks ev­i­dence to prove that’s the cul­prit for the opi­oid over­dose cri­sis. A White House spokesman de­clined to com­ment on the record.

Fed­eral drug prose­cu­tions de­clined un­der Obama

The Jus­tice Depart­ment filed drug charges against 24,638 de­fen­dants in 2016, down 23% from 2011, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, which an­a­lyzed fed­eral data. The data re­flects felonies and some se­ri­ous mis­de­meanors.

But that’s over­all drug prose­cu­tions, not just prose­cu­tions re­lated to opi­oids. And it only in­cludes fed­eral prose­cu­tions — the vast ma­jor­ity of crim­i­nal prose­cu­tions are in state courts.

We found that the drop was due to some of the spe­cific ac­tions the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion took to stop the pros­e­cu­tion of low-level of­fend­ers.

Pew noted that in 2013, then At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder di­rected fed­eral prose­cu­tors to en­sure that each case they brought served “a sub­stan­tial fed­eral in­ter­est.”

Holder man­dated that cer­tain low-level non­vi­o­lent drug of­fend­ers, with no ties to gangs or car­tels, would no longer face manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences. He called for more treat­ment and al­ter­na­tives to prison.

Also in 2013, U.S. Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral James Cole is­sued a me­moran­dum to fed­eral at­tor­neys re­lated to pri­or­i­tiz­ing mar­i­juana prose­cu­tions. He di­rected at­tor­neys to fo­cus on car­tels or other crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions and the use of vi­o­lence to dis­trib­ute the drug.

Fed­eral mar­i­juana prose­cu­tions fell to 5,158 in 2016, down 39% from five years ear­lier, Pew found.

Obama-era drop in drug prose­cu­tions not to blame for opi­oid over­doses

Trump im­plied that lack of prose­cu­tions likely led to a wors­en­ing of the opi­oid cri­sis. But ex­perts we con­tacted had a dif­fer­ent view.

“No se­ri­ous an­a­lyst would ar­gue that fed­eral prose­cu­tions have con­se­quences for opi­oid over­doses,” said Univer­sity of Mary­land crim­i­nol­ogy pro­fes­sor Peter Reuter. “The driv­ers of that in­crease are the ar­rival of fen­tanyl, since about 2012, and the over­pre­scrip­tion of opi­oids be­fore it. There has been some de­cline in heroin re­tail prices. But no prior ef­fort against high­level distrib­u­tors and traf­fick­ers has ever had sus­tained suc­cess at the re­tail level.”

Some drug ex­perts in­clud­ing An­drew Kolodny, co-di­rec­tor of opi­oid pol­icy re­search at Bran­deis Univer­sity’s Heller School for So­cial Pol­icy and Man­age­ment, have crit­i­cized Obama for tak­ing too long to ad­dress the cri­sis, but not be­cause of a lack of prose­cu­tions.

“Obama de­serves blame for ne­glect­ing the epi­demic and fail­ing to en­sure a co­or­di­nated fed­eral re­sponse,” Kolodny said. “I can think of sev­eral ar­eas where it’s fair to crit­i­cize him. The de­cline in fed­eral drug prose­cu­tions is not one of them.”

Trump has a point that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was slow to re­spond to the opi­oid cri­sis, said Jon Caulkins, a Carnegie Mel­lon pro­fes­sor and ex­pert on drug pol­icy.

“Any­one look­ing at the ba­sic death stats knew we had a prob­lem by 2000,” Caulkins said. “So this is a na­tional dis­grace, and Obama was in power for eight of the more re­cent years, and if ‘the buck stops on the pres­i­dent’s desk’ then it’s fair to put some blame there.”

A September 2016 re­port from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Jus­tice Depart­ment found that prose­cu­tors could help com­bat the epi­demic by pri­or­i­tiz­ing pros­e­cu­tion of heroin distrib­u­tors and of med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als who im­prop­erly pre­scribe opi­oids. The re­port also stated that fed­eral pros­e­cu­tion had “lagged,” and more prose­cu­tors were needed.

The re­port noted, how­ever, that in­ves­ti­ga­tions “can be dif­fi­cult when the vic­tim is de­ceased and the source of the drugs is not im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous.”

Our rat­ing

Trump said “at the end of 2016, there were 23% fewer fed­eral prose­cu­tions than in 2011, so (prose­cu­tors) looked at this surge and they let it go by.” Trump made the state­ment in the con­text of ris­ing opi­oid over­dose deaths.

An anal­y­sis of data shows that fed­eral drug charges over­all de­clined 23% be­tween 2011 and 2016. But that data doesn’t tell us any­thing about opi­oid cases specif­i­cally.

Where Trump misses the mark is his sug­ges­tion that the drop in prose­cu­tions is to blame for the opi­oid epi­demic, which started be­fore Obama’s ten­ure and then grew worse dur­ing his pres­i­dency. Obama could have done more ear­lier to ad­dress the epi­demic, ex­perts said, but there is no ev­i­dence that his strat­egy on fed­eral drug prose­cu­tions led to a spike in opi­oid over­dose deaths.

We rate this claim Half True.

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