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Trump’s Plan for Murderous Drug Prohibition Won’t Solve Anything — Here’s Why

It’s been 99 years since Congress passed alcohol prohibition into law. It’s been 75 years since Congress repealed alcohol prohibition as a failure. And it’s been nearly 50 years since Nixon initiated a failed attempt at narcotics prohibition, known as the “War on Drugs.”

Congress went through the tedious process of passing a Constitutional Amendment to repeal alcohol prohibition — because it was a total failure, by any measure. Not only did prohibition backfire spectacularly — it made it hugely profitable to become a criminal… even for law enforcement officers.

As Historian Michael Lerner writes at PBS.org, “The sums of money being exchanged during the dry era proved a corrupting influence in both the Federal Bureau of Prohibition and at the state and local level. Police officers and Prohibition agents alike were frequently tempted by bribes or the lucrative opportunity to go into bootlegging themselves. […] The growth of the illegal liquor trade […] made criminals of millions of Americans. As the decade progressed, court rooms and jails overflowed, and the legal system failed to keep up.”

Donald Trump recently unveiled his incoherent and murderous approach to the opioid crisis, which will undoubtedly push the opioid crisis into a deadlier and costlier phase.

Even before Trump’s announcement, narcotics prohibition has resulted in much of the same corruption as did alcohol prohibition.

Across the country, “bad apples” in police departments are attempting to profit from prohibition to supplement their taxpayer salaries and pensions. There are cases of this in Chicago; in Miami; in Galveston, TX; in heartland Ohio; in heartland Iowa; and on a large scale in Baltimore. That’s not even an exhaustive list of police officers who have been arrested for attempting to profit from prohibition.

When Donald brags about getting tougher on crimes — what he’s really saying is two-fold.

1) He agrees with Jeff Sessions that we need to put more people in prison. (On an aside: Jeff Sessions is close with the private prison industry. As recently as Spring of 2017, he had holdings in mutual funds that included private prisons. Two of Sessions’ former Senate aides also went on to become lobbyists for GEO Group, which has benefited from Jeff Sessions’ crackdown on cannabis.)

2) He’s going to make it a lot more profitable to get into the trafficking business.

And while it seems “tough on crime” to threaten “drug kingpins” with the death penalty — the kingpins that pour the most drugs into this country… don’t operate within the borders of this country.

On top of that, drug dealers know that the threat of death is an occupational hazard. That’s why they arm themselves. Threatening to kill them isn’t a deterrent.

A physical wall won’t stop the inflow of drugs, either. The party that worships at the altar of the “free market” should know this well: if we reduce the supply of drugs without reducing the demand for drugs, the only thing that happens is that drugs get more expensive.

When drugs get more expensive, manufacturers and dealers get creative to capture those higher prices. Another knock-on effect is that the potency of wholesale narcotics increases as the risk of getting caught increases. That, in turn, encourages dealers in the United States to cut their product to maximize their profits while keeping their own product affordable within their local market.

We saw this in the 80s and 90s with cocaine trafficking and the explosion of crack, and this is a part of the reason why dealers are cutting heroin with fentanyl today.

Heavily criminalizing drug activity doesn’t stamp out drug activity — it just concentrates market power into the hands of the most cunning and most ruthless kingpins. And when one kingpin is arrested or killed, a power vacuum is created.

In the Ohio Valley, we saw this when — first, Bill Lias and then, Paul Hankish — were arrested. Illegal gambling didn’t go away, and neither did the prostitution or the drugs that poured into the Valley in the 70s and 80s. The supply was just filled by a bunch of smaller and less scrupulous criminals, who brought in their own prostitution and drug rackets.

This played out in Los Angeles with the arrest of “Freeway” Rick Ross. In Boston with the arrest of Darryl “God” Whiting. Internationally we saw this following the assassination of Pablo Escobar — and 25 years later with the arrest of “El Chapo”.

There’s always another drug dealer, or a dozen, to fill the void of one dead kingpin.

And it’s not because there are so many people who like dealing drugs. People don’t get into dealing drugs because it’s easy or because it’s fulfilling — people get into dealing drugs when they’re faced with little hope and few options. It’s a potentially high risk, high reward endeavor.

By the same token, the beginnings of the opioid crisis coincide closely with economic declines in the Rust Belt — opiate abuse and overdose deaths are highest in areas that have lost opportunities, lost hope, and plunged into despair.

To address America’s opioid crisis and larger drug issues, we need to address the demand side of the drug problem. And we need to address the opioid crisis where it began: as a health issue, and as an economic issue.

This means radically reforming our approach to narcotics and drug abuse.

We should look to the functional alternative model in Portugal, where instead of driving drug users underground, they shined a light on their country’s drug issues, destigmatized drug addiction, and decriminalized all drugs.

More than sixteen years later, the country has seen across the board declines in drug use, overdose deaths, drug-related crime, incarceration rates, and a massive drop in HIV infection rates.

Portugal’s approach is not perfect, and unlike most of Trump’s decrees, it is not a policy that can be summed up in 140 characters. But it’s proven infinitely more effective than our half-century of failed narcotics prohibition.

Instead, Trump is doubling down on the very policies that helped to create the current crisis.

The only reasonable outcomes to expect are:

1) Like 99 years ago, we will re-fill our prisons with drug users, funneling taxpayer dollars towards private prisons and ineffective private treatment centers that have little ability or incentive to fully “cure” addiction.

2) Like 99 years ago, thousands of local economies around the country will continue to stall as working-age men and women across the country are removed from the workforce and tossed in prison.

3) Like 99 years ago, more people will likely die because of cost-saving measures by unscrupulous drug manufacturers and drug dealers.

4) Like 99 years ago, these policies will make the crisis even worse, making drug trafficking an even more lucrative business and encouraging corruption among those sworn to uphold the law.

If increasing the body count and filling prisons are the goals that Trump and Sessions are aiming to achieve, this plan is virtually guaranteed to deliver.

But, if we are serious about addressing the opioid crisis, we need to drop the failed policies of prohibition that have made drug trafficking such a profitable endeavor. And we need to address the root causes of economic depression and personal despair across our once-thriving communities.

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