A lot has changed since former President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse as “public enemy No. 1” on June 17, 1971, thus, declaring America’s war on drugs.
More than 115 U.S. citizens die every day from opioid overdoses. To put that into perspective, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 20,145 overdose deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in the 12 months that preceded Jan. 31, 2017. Last year, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic to be a national emergency. In February, Congress passed a $6 billion budget deal devoted to tackling the issue of opioid addiction.
Before conducting a thorough analysis of opioid abuse, one must first define what exactly an opioid is. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and many others.”
Lawmakers have been treating the national crisis as an issue of public health as opposed to an issue of criminal justice.
Some critics assert that the federal government’s recent compassion toward victims of opioid abuse lies in the fact that it predominantly affects white Americans in comparison to the number of African Americans who were disproportionately impacted by the crack epidemic in the 1980s, which received a much more callous response from the government at the time.
However, the proponents of this notion fail to account for the fact that today’s political climate, administration and overall cultural attitude differ greatly than that of the 1980s.
Public opinion on addiction has undergone some serious evolution. In the past few decades, drug abuse has no longer been perceived as a criminal act, but as a sickness in need of immediate cure. This more refined outlook on drug abuse is a product of a well-informed populace — one less inclined to instill a sense of guilt in those who suffer from a mental illness.
Despite any changes in public opinion, the ineffective “tough on crime” policies implemented during the crack epidemic continue to stain the current criminal justice system.
Mandatory minimum sentences still exist. The policy was established in 1986 with the intention of imposing harsher sentences on high level drug traffickers, however, nonviolent drug possessors accounted for the majority of incarcerations.
For example, carrying only five grams of crack would be deemed worthy of a five-year sentence without parole. This policy failed to reduce drug-related crime and only aided in the inflation of America’s incarceration rate which is substantially higher than that of any other country.
Trump is calling for the Justice Department to impose death sentences on high level drug traffickers. The 1980s should serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when politicians spew this kind of rhetoric. More often than not, the term “high-level drug trafficker” becomes blurred and ends up leaving nonviolent drug addicts to suffer. The call for capital punishment is a radical step in the wrong direction and will only result in the repetition of mistakes made during the crack epidemic.
Thankfully, some politicians aim to reverse the harsh and unreasonable sentencing imposed during the ‘80s. Under a new concept known as “prison reform,” certain drug defendants will receive a reduced sentence and be eligible to serve the last part of their sentence under home confinement.
Unfortunately, Republicans in support of these sentencing changes have come under fire for “going easy on criminals,” which would seemingly go against the GOP’s classic doctrine of establishing “law and order” and padding the pockets of investors in the prison industry.
All hope is not lost. A package of opioid proposals was passed unanimously in April. Some of the proposals include research into nonaddictive painkillers, improved training, healthcare providers using nonaddictive treatments in their care and funding for states experiencing shortages in the substance abuse and mental health workforce.
During such polarizing and tumultuous times, this rare occurrence of bipartisanship restores faith in American democracy. While it may not always seem like it, the “ol’ donkey and elephant” are capable of meeting somewhere in the middle for the sake of achieving a common goal: the good of the people.