Congratulations, America. We won the war on drugs.
The two largest suppliers of narcotics to the United States have suffered major blows in the past few months. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, boss of the Sinaloa Cartel that supplied cocaine and heroin to the U.S. for years, was convicted by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and will probably be incarcerated until the day he dies. The Sackler family, the bosses of Purdue Pharma, which supplied the U.S. with OxyContin, was hit with a $270 million settlement last week, faces multiple other lawsuits, and is exploring filing bankruptcy for Purdue.
Philadelphia is on its way to becoming drug free.
Just last week, federal agents stopped $38 million worth of cocaine at the Port of Philadelphia — the largest seizure in about two decades. In the fall, District Attorney Larry Krasner announced that the “Alameda” drug ring that was operating in Kensington had been taken down with 57 arrests. The few drugs that were left in Kensington were swept up in a bust led by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro last month in which law enforcement seized $2 million worth of drugs.
With all these busts, there must not be any more drugs in Philadelphia — probably none left in the United States at all. We are closer to declaring mission accomplished.
Except that if the mission is to prevent overdose death and addiction, we are not closer at all.
If there was any sense to the logic that drugs busts lead to decreased drug use, we would not be in the middle of an overdose crisis, one of the most devastating public health crises in U.S. history. Despite literally tons of drug seizures over the last four decades, and millions of (mostly black and brown) people incarcerated for drug offenses, more than 70,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2017. It is estimated that another 70,000 died in 2018.
The response to the overdose crisis has been so myopic that lawmakers and prosecutors employ exactly the same tactics that were used during the ’80s and ’90s — only this time they claim to be doing it in the name of public health.
Pennsylvania lawmakers introduced a bill that would impose mandatory minimum sentences on people caught with even small amounts of fentanyl. According to an op-ed by Sen. Mike Regan for the York Daily Record, tough sentences are a part of public health strategy: “We must stop the flow of fentanyl by getting the drug kingpins off the street. They are selling a lethal substance and must be held accountable and stopped if we want to have any hope of bringing an end to this epidemic.”
But how is this different than the tough-on-crime tactics of the War on Drugs? It’s not as if Pennsylvania isn’t cracking down on drug use now. Pennsylvania is leading the nation in drug delivery resulting in death prosecutions — homicide charges against people who gave, sold, or used drugs with a person who died from an overdose. According to research by the Health in Justice Lab at Northeastern University, those charged in about half of the cases are family and friends of the deceased, not kingpins or even traditional dealers.
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman sought these charges more than any other DA in the country — more than 60 times since 2016. Stedman talks about these prosecutions as a part of a public health effort: “Enforcement is absolutely a prong in the collaborative efforts to stall the opioid epidemic.”
One of the most dangerous ways to use opioids is alone. The state is working to increase access to naloxone — an opioid overdose reversal medication — among the public. At the same time, prosecutors and lawmakers criminalize using together and increase the risk of overdose, in the name of public health.
War on Drugs policies disguised as public health benefits also are popular on the national level and on both sides of the aisle. In 2018, President Donald Trump called for the death penalty for drug dealers (“the really bad pushers”) and in the same speech talked about addiction as a health problem and the opioid crisis as a public health emergency. On the other side of the spectrum, Sen. Bernie Sanders who has long held that addiction is a disease, introduced a bill last year that would impose a 10-year minimum prison sentence on pharmaceutical executives if they are found to have contributed to the crisis.
So much for our society’s supposed recent epiphany that “we can’t arrest our way out of this crisis.”
Even laws that limit the number of days an opioid prescription can be written for, such as the seven-day limit proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are just more of prohibition — expanding the reach of law enforcement over another type of “pushers.”