Opinions

A Step Forward For Drug Policy

       In the past few weeks, the president has brought up a topic that, in light of foreign affairs and cultural clashes, hasn’t seen much limelight. This topic, the topic of drug policy, should be one that we are all concerned about. The drug crisis has had serious repercussions throughout the criminal justice world, and affects millions of people’s lives. Most of us probably know at least a few friends and even family members who have dealt with drug abuse. For some of us, that is closer to home than others. This is a difficult issue for many. The government has wrestled with how it handles drug policy for decades now, and the general public is still not quite sure how to talk about it. The public perception of drug addicts can range from movie junkie stereotypes to personal dependency on prescription medication. Some substances, like marijuana, have become much more accepted, but still some hold reservations about the safety of its use. One thing is for certain, the drug war has been failure.

        As part of the larger war on crime, the drug war has contributed to poor race relations and police militarization. The police spend vast time and resources every year searching for recreational drugs, and drug users are given harsh sentences due to mandatory minimum laws and the general perception that drug addicts are “bad people.” Professionals and researchers in the field have been pleading with politicians for decades to adopt a more treatment-oriented approach. In spite of their pleas, our leaders have for the most part decided to go for a more “law and order” approach. I would venture to guess that this has more to do with getting elected than it does a sincere belief in this aggressive enforcement strategy. This is what leads us to now.

      Earlier this month, President Trump publicly stated that he wanted to renew interest in the opioid crisis, calling it a “public health crisis.” His administration has a skeleton of a plan on whitehouse.gov, and while it is not the most ideal, it shows a certain potential for a paradigm shift in this country. What was once a “crime” issue is now being talked about in the most conservative circles as “public health” issue. This seemingly small and semantic change is actually a huge step in the right direction.

       In the plan it calls attention to the rising drug overdose rate in the United States between 2015 and 2016. While other crimes have gone down, drug crimes and related deaths have gone up slightly. It is good to see the administration calling attention to this, and they have developed some vague, but pointed goals for drug policy. One of the things that sticks out is the attention given to the mental health and rehabilitation funding in the plan. This awareness concerning the issue could denote a more positive, healing approach to this issue. Additionally, the plan seeks to improve first responder services like EMTs. Again, this isn’t talked about in great detail, but the statement on the website is merely an outline as of yet. The most striking thing about the plan is a commitment to data-informed policy.

       There are some downsides. While the official statement is much more even-keeled, Trump’s rhetoric in public is… less nuanced. This could cause some problems if, in the future, Trump’s actual action on drugs is not in congruence with what his cabinet has in mind. There is also some troubling language within the plan itself. Trump claims to want to “…prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place.” This echoes a certain Nixonian sentiment about drug policy that has been ineffective and even dangerous in the past. It would be a loss for this administration to employ tried and failed methods of drug policy.

       Ultimately, none of this is very conclusive. The president’s actions a few months from now could be completely different. There is a lot of promise for the future of drug policy. Marijuana has become legalised or decriminalized in several states, and harder drugs have been taken more seriously now that we know more about them. The hope is that we can move forward as a nation in a bipartisan effort to save lives. While the current administration’s plan leaves a lot to be desired, there are elements of potential there. Maybe we can learn from the past. Senseless drug war era policy has lead to hostile streets, the proliferation of criminal drug trade, and police brutality that could have been avoided. With so many locked up on minor drug charges, the cost in human life is too great to continue treating this as crime problem. Only if we are able to shift the paradigm on this will we see real positive change.

     Sources: WhiteHouse.gov, CDC.gov

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