MORRIS – On March 19, the president announced his plan to confront the opioid crisis in this country. It was an issue that needed tough talk and from a president that provides plenty of tough talk, it was not unexpected.
Whether or not action will follow the talk is another question, and we can see where that comes from down the road.
What was striking, however, was the idea most headlines latched onto: the death penalty for drug dealers. This sort of doubling down on the War on Drugs reminds of those Japanese soldiers who kept popping up on islands in the South Pacific throughout the 1970s – they were fighting a war the rest of the world knew they had lost long ago.
When President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs, and President Ronald Reagan doubled down a couple of presidents later, it probably wasn’t a bad idea. The country had declared wars on intangible things before – LBJ declared war on poverty. In fact, we’ve declared more wars on ideas than we have on nations since the end of World War II.
The problem is, these war declarations are lazy solutions. And prescribing the death penalty for drug dealers is lazy too. It’s a cheap soundbite that will get some applause at a rally, some ink on paper (like this column right now) and will change nothing.
That’s because big problems are complicated and require complicated solutions. President Bill Clinton tried the same thing in the 1990s, with “3 strikes and you’re out” and mandatory minimum sentencing. They sound good, but they oversimplify a problem that needs thoughtful solutions. Nuance is something we’ve been lacking in recent years.
Maybe it was because his wife was running for president, but Clinton came to say he regretted those laws 20 years after the fact.
Countries that have had success combating their drug problem, places such as Portugal and Uruguay, did so because they looked at it as a health crisis, not a criminal one. It does spawn criminal behavior, but if you treat the source, the crime that follows will dissipate.
The president seemed to be on the right path earlier in his term when he declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. But we live in lazy times, with people in power wanting quick and easy solutions without the fuss of having to do the work. It’s easier to just issue proscriptions than work to solve a problem.
We see this in the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte has made it legal to kill drug dealers. The American president hasn’t gone so far as to officially encourage vigilante justice which is just as well because it clearly does not work. Thousands have died in the Philippines as a result of the policy, and yet they are still finding more drug dealers.
Instead, we need to be willing to put in the work. We know the environments that spawn addicts and dealers, and we need to address those factors. Rules and regulations in place governing the prescriptions for opioid painkillers need to be enforced to minimize new addictions.
For the people who turn to dealing to earn a living, we need to look at the socio-economic conditions that make it more attractive than more traditional and honest work. If the only jobs in your area offered minimum wage and no benefits, how far would you need to be pushed to make a little more money on the side selling baggies of powder? Do any of us know how we’d really respond with our backs against the wall and our families needing to eat?
There’s no arguing that drug dealers are criminals, but we can’t keep being reactive about the crisis. It’s as effective as training a fire department as the city burns from an unattended candle.
So while we’re addressing the issue, instead of focusing on the quick fix and the soundbite, let’s roll up our sleeves and work for a solution. We used to do that sort of thing, before we were lazy.