I was listening to Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address when he made the following comment about drugs:
These reforms will also support our response to the terrible crisis of opioid and drug addiction. Never before has it been like it is now. It is terrible. We have to do something about it. In 2016, we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses — 174 deaths per day; 7 per hour. We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge.
How much do “drug dealers and pushers” – a redundancy, by the way – have to do with the 64,000 Americans we lost to drug overdoses in 2016?
Around 17,000 of the overdose deaths are from prescribed opioids. Then consider that many of the heroin and fentanyl overdoses happen because someone got addicted to their prescribed opioids and then were cut off and turned to street drugs. Others are folks who started by swiping or being given someone else’s prescribed opioids.
The “drug dealers and pushers” at the root of this overdose crisis are greedy pharmaceutical companies, enabled by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
These “Drug Dealers and Pushers” Have Lobbyists, Though
At the DEA, there is an Office of Diversion Control. One of its functions is to set the production quotas for Schedule II drugs, like the synthetic opioids.
Oxycodone’s (Purdue Pharma’s Oxycontin) first quota was set at 8.3 tons back in 1997. When that quota ballooned to 98,000 kilograms of oxycodone approved by 2011, Slate asked DEA Supervisory Special Agent Gary Boggs why the uptick in drug abuse didn’t call for a reduction in the quota?
Boggs’ answer was that Big Pharma needed to keep making enough pills for the abusers so pain patients could have whatever remained!
“What you have to understand,” Boggs replied, “is that you do have legitimate patients and they’re fishing from the same pond that the illegitimate patients are fishing from, so you have to be cautious not to restrict the quota to the point that when the legitimate parties go to the pool, all the fish haven’t been taken out by the illegitimate parties.”
(Can you even imagine telling the federal government you must be approved to grow 90,000 cannabis plants so that after all the potheads get their weed, there will still be enough medical marijuana to supply the cancer patients?)
By 2013, Big Pharma was allowed to push out over 150,000 kilograms of oxycodone.
That quota has been reduced since then, with 2018’s approved quota of 95,962 kilograms finally dropping below the 2011 quota.
But don’t expect the Trump Administration to seriously crack down the pharmaceutical “drug dealers and pushers” who made $62 million in campaign contributions and spent $277 million on lobbying Congress in 2016.
Cracking Down on the “Merchants of Addiction”
(except pharma, booze, cigs, gambling, video games, fast food, and other campaign contributors)
The deaths from these legally-pushed drugs are how Trump will justify the crack down he wants to begin on illegally-pushed drugs, including marijuana.
Notice how Trump said, “opioid and drug addiction.” That was a scripted remark intended to broaden the focus beyond just the pharmaceuticals.
Trump’s rhetoric is part of a trend I’m following. On numerous occasions, Trump and the drug warriors supporting him have purposefully used the problem of opioid deaths to paint a bigger picture of a problem with all drugs.
In January, Trump made sure to conflate opioids with other drugs as he also added his fixation on a southern border wall to the issue:
Whether it’s the opioids, whether it’s drugs as you hear in the traditional sense, much comes through the southern border.
In an earlier January appearance, Trump made the same reference to “traditional (non-pharmaceutical) drugs”:
It’s never been like this. We’ve never had a problem with drugs like we do – whether it’s opioid or drugs in the traditional sense, it’s never been like it is.
With the deaths from drug overdoses being extended to the “traditional drugs,” it’s then Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions who makes the explicit connection to marijuana by citing the gateway drug theory:
And you talk to police chiefs, consistently they say much of the addiction starts with marijuana.
Jeff Sessions’ numerous invocations of the gateway drug theory are then echoed by Congressman Pete Sessions, chair of the House Rules Committee:
And there’s massive amounts of evidence that suggests that our young people, many of them that get into heroin, methamphetamines, and a lot of other things, begin not only with marijuana, but by addiction.
Congressman Sessions chairs the powerful committee that has oversight on the budget and relations with the executive branch. He thinks it’s insane that we’re not cracking down on the legalized marijuana industry (his “merchants of addiction,” not the pharmaceutical companies):
Marijuana is an addictive product and the merchants of addiction make it that way. They make it for addiction. The make it to where our people, our young people, become addicted to marijuana and keep going.
Congressman Sessions recently blocked a vote in his committee on the Rohrabacher amendment, the budgetary rider that has kept federal law enforcement at bay in medical marijuana states. He believes that allowing for legalized marijuana (his “garbage,” not the pharmaceutical companies) is leading kids down the path of addiction to heroin:
We have an opioid addiction problem. We have 60,000 opioid-addicted children born in this country and two-thirds of the moms will be dead in two years, and what do we do? We go and politically push this garbage – illegal drugs – garbage!
And Attorney General Sessions, speaking to the DEA last week, knows that not cracking down on the “merchants of addiction” is what got us into this mess in the first place:
Resources have not been what we need them to be. What has been the result of this over a period of years? We saw drug purity up, availability of drugs up, and drug prices down. Three bad trends in this country. We saw addiction up and death up to a degree this nation has never seen before.
So, Trump and his allies have identified the problem of deaths from “opioids and traditional drugs” and come up with a scapegoat to blame in “the merchants of addiction.” They’ve identified a solution in cracking down on “drug dealers and pushers,” particularly on the southern border.
The Crackdown is Only a Question of “How Much?”
Add to this mix the cozy relationship Trump has fostered with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines whose drug crackdown consists of allowing police and vigilantes to murder over 12,000 drug dealers and users on the streets with impunity.
From the New York Times in May:
President Trump praised President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines in a phone call last month for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem” in the island nation where the government has sanctioned gunning down suspects in the streets.
By October, Trump was establishing the foundation of blame on users of “traditional drugs” for the evils of terrorists and criminals:
Every American should know that if they purchase illegal drugs, they are helping to finance some of the most violent, cruel, and ruthless organizations anywhere in the world.
Then in January, Trump begins to explain that while we’re having a big drug problem in America, other countries (like, say, the Philippines) don’t share our problem because they are “harsh” on drugs:
Not so difficult for some, believe it or not. They take it very seriously. They’re very harsh. Those are the ones that have much less difficulty.
The next week, Trump reiterates the idea that being tough on “traditional drugs” is something that works, seemingly exasperated that he can’t just have cops kill dealers like Duterte does.
Some areas take care of it through very, very tough measures. We don’t. We’re not prepared to do that – I guess, they say – as a country.
“I guess, they say” sounds to me like Trump is wholly convinced it is the right thing to do, but has been counseled by staff or cabinet members that vigilante slayings and police executions wouldn’t be popular here.
But getting tougher, in some measure, is exactly what Trump would like to see happen:
And frankly, the tougher we get, the better it’s going to be, the faster it’s going to go away.
Predicting how much Trump can accomplish in cracking down on the “traditional drugs” is fraught with confounding variables (Mueller, for instance). It does seem clear, however, that Trump and his Attorney General believe cracking down is the right thing to do and see it as a moral imperative.
We must confront the culture of drug abuse head-on, to reduce the demand for dangerous narcotics.
I do think that this whole country need to not be so lacks-a-daisical [sic] about drugs.