The Justice Department's New Opioid 'Tools' Are All About Escalating the Drug War

Expect more raids and more arrests.


Kellyanne Conway
Cheriss May/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Robert Patterson, acting administrator for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), announced new efforts to address opioid overdoses in America today.

In line with his insistent (and mistaken) belief that what America needs to stop deaths is an escalation of the failed drug war, Sessions called for increased funding and staff for the purposes of arresting and prosecuting more people.

Here are the basics of what he and Patterson announced today:

  • More than $12 million in grant funding to state and local law enforcement agencies specifically engaged in investigating and arresting those involved in illicit opioid and meth manufacturing.
  • A new DEA field division office in Louisville, Kentucky, focusing on drug enforcement in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. This action expands an existing district office, and again, the goal here is investigating and arresting people for drug trafficking.
  • A new "opioid coordinator" for each U.S. attorney's office in the United States to be named by mid-December. The memo from Sessions to these offices makes it clear that the emphasis for this coordinator is to provide legal advice to each attorneys' office to prosecute more opioid cases and calls for the office to keep track of opioid prosecution statistics from their offices.

Separately, and somewhat mystifyingly, the administration announced that White House adviser Kellyanne Conway will be its lead representative in the opioid fight. Conway was already playing this role, previously saying the administration supports efforts to change the way doctors measure pain to keep drug-seekers from faking it in order to land prescriptions.

Given that the Trump administration has been trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act as an intrusive government intervention into our healthcare, it's a bit hypocritical to see support for such a paternalistic and authoritarian meddling in people's personal pain management.

The role prescription opioids have played in the overdose crisis has been misunderstood and exaggerated. As Jacob Sullum noted recently, the number of opioid users who ultimately become addicted any given year is relatively small (one to two percent) and the rate of fatal overdoses among users with prescriptions is even smaller.

Overdose deaths are more likely to come from people combining drugs or combining opioids with alcohol, and these problems are actually exacerbated when you force people with drug addictions into the black market, where they'll end up taking opioids of unknown origins that may be laced with other drugs. That's exactly what will happen with an expanded anti-opioid effort.

Alternatively, more and more scientific evidence is showing that medical marijuana is useful for helping people manage chronic pain and avoid addiction to opioids. But Sessions is completely opposed to marijuana use and the Justice Department is considering how or whether they're going to continue taking a hands-off approach toward state-level legalization.

In short, the Department of Justice's current approach and attitude toward fighting opioid overdoses is incoherent and bound to make the problems worse. These are "tools" to cause more harm and pain to people's families, not to ease them.