What's the best way to address the national problem of opioid abuse and overdose deaths? "My take," President Donald Trump declared in Ohio yesterday, "is you have to get really, really tough, really mean with the drug pushers and the drug dealers. We can do all the blue ribbon committees we want—[applause]—we have to get a lot tougher than we are."
The president's dismissal of blue ribbon commissions is somewhat perplexing, since he ordered that one be created just last March—the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. In any case, the president is evidently eager to rev up the war on drugs.
What might the president mean by getting really tough on drug pushers? One clue might be his phone call to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte last April. "I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem," Trump said. "Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that."
Duterte is indeed doing an "unbelievable job," according to Human Rights Watch. The group estimates that that Duterte's drug war has killed more than 12,000 drug suspects so far.
As big a blustering blowhard as our president is, I trust that he is not actually contemplating Duterte-style extrajudicial killings when he says "we have to get a lot tougher than we are." Nevertheless, it is clear that the president has learned nothing from the failures of the war on drugs. Over the past four decades, the government has spent more than trillion dollars, locked up millions of Americans, and undermined our civil liberties, especially our Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure, to stop the drug trade. Despite all the resources wasted and lives lost, the prices of illicit drugs have generally declined.
Prohibitionists claim that the drug war has reduced drug-related crime, decreased drug-related disease and overdose, and disrupted and dismantled organized criminal enterprises. But in a paper last year for the Cato Institute, George Mason University economists Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall show that "prohibition is not only ineffective, but counterproductive, at achieving the goals of policymakers both domestically and abroad. Given the insights from economics and the available data, we find that the domestic War on Drugs has contributed to an increase in drug overdoses and fostered and sustained the creation of powerful drug cartels."
My Reason colleague Jacob Sullum concurs: "The government has contributed to [opioid] deaths in several ways. It created a black market in which drug users do not know what they are getting, encouraged traffickers to move toward increasingly compact and potent products (such as fentanyl), and reduced access to less dangerous alternatives (such as prescription painkillers)."
What will work? Needle exchanges will reduce the spread of diseases. Making the overdose-reversing drug naloxone more readily available will reduce overdoses. And the president's own drug addiction commission recommended the removal of federal barriers that limit access to any forms of FDA-approved medication-assisted treatment for drug dependent folks.
Beyond that: In a stark contrast to Duterte's bloody anti-drug campaign, one country has shown that the way to win the drug war is to end it. Portugal has decriminalized all drug use and focuses instead on treatment. The annual rate drug of overdose deaths in Portugal is now 1 per 170,000 citizens. The figure is 33 times higher in the U.S., at 1 per 5,100 Americans. President Trump ought to make a congratulatory call to Portugal instead, and ask about the "great job" that country is doing in handling its drug dependence problems.