Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump vehemently promised to “stop the flow of illegal drugs into the country,” consistently blaming ‘illegals’ or “bad hombre’s” that cross the border for bringing drugs and crime to our cities. While these statements fell in line with his rhetoric on immigration, they addressed the concerns of many families dealing with opioid addiction. For many white rural voters in states like New Hampshire, Maine, and West Virginia it meant that the administration would finally hear their struggles.
This past week Trump signed a new executive order to combat the rising opioid epidemic plaguing many communities across the nation. He announced his administration would create a new commission headed by Chris Christie whose primary task will be to report issues and offer solutions to said issues by state. However, this drug policy lacks the urgency and demonstrates the administration’s unwillingness to address the real concerns of opioid addiction in America.
Last December General Vivek H. Murthy released a landmark report on the state of dependency in America. In the report, General Murthy suggested ‘radical’ changes to how the government addresses drug addiction in the United States. In the past, the government had often misinterpreted the real problem while ignoring modern science. But the Trump administration’s approach of starting anew further goes to show their lack of understanding and urgency to an issue that claims the lives of more than 53,000 a year.
In addition to the lack of urgency, the complete misunderstanding of drug issues is troubling. Trump’s uninformed drug policy and scapegoating of minority groups draw reminders to a previous administration; Richard Nixon, his war on the anti-war left, black people, and drugs. Trump’s hard-line ‘Law & Order” rhetoric is nothing new to the Republican party or politics. Richard Nixon during his first term infamously launched the “War on Drugs” campaign in which he sought to criticize minority communities for the ‘rampant increase’ in drug use and violence.
A former Nixon aide summarized the goals of the campaign in an interview with Harper’s Magazine.
“The Nixon Campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies : the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool has been well-documented and used on both sides of the political spectrum, though the United States and countries abroad have been feeling the significant effects of his campaign ever since. Between bloodshed in Latin American countries, the punishment of minority groups within the United States, and billions of dollars wasted the drug war is now impossible to ignore.
Amid all the rhetoric and craziness in the current administration, Trumps decision to appoint Christie as the head of the initiative was a welcome approach to tackling the issues. Chris Christie who has been an outspoken advocate on taking a public-health approach to the opioid epidemic. Christie in his time as New Jersey governor supported and signed ‘Good Samaritan’ laws to protect drug users when they report overdoses and expanded treatment for those individuals. However, this welcomed approach might be short-lived with Attorney General Jeff Sessions presence on the committee and his hard-line stance on any possible opioid deterrent, such as marijuana.
Jeff Sessions has a long been a critic of marijuana legalization saying on more than one occasion that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” The schism within the administrations’ drug policy is not a coincidence but a calculated effort to divide who gets treatment and who gets punished.
During the campaign, Donald Trump promised better treatment and additional services for people dealing with opioid addiction. At the same time, he condemned President Obama’s decision to commute the sentences of low-level drug offenders, most of whom were black citizens. The double standard becomes even more evident now that opioids are affecting residents in mostly rural, white communities across the country. During the 1980’s, crack-cocaine had made its way into the inner cities, and there was an outcry from the people and media for something to be done. That something manifested into the Drug Abuse Act of 1988 and adopted strict mandatory minimum sentences that focused on harsh penalties for crack. Consequently, crack was more widely used in poor, black communities as it was easier to obtain. Later on, in a push to land drug treatment and economic assistance for those in the community, the Congressional Black Caucus urged Bill Clinton to provide those services. Alas, Clinton ignored their requests and took a more hard-line approach in the pursuit of votes from conservative Republicans.
With all of this in mind, a question remains for Chris Christie and the administration’s new initiative to tackle the drug epidemic: Will there be any compassion for those suffering in the black community, or will we be faced with the same recurring problems we’ve been dealing with since the early 1960’s?
The answer to these questions likely lies with Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, and that should worry all Americans. The government has spent the better part of 40 years promoting anti-drug propaganda while criminalizing those who use and sell drugs with no credible basis for doing so. If marijuana is too dangerous for recreational use then why are more deadly drugs allowed like alcohol and tobacco? For too many years there has been a concerted effort to incite anxiety in rural white communities while placing unfair blame and punishment on people of color. And while it is not a small task for any administration to tackle the opioid crisis, this is one of the few times where people are not being blamed for their addiction. Alternatively, the Trump Administration has consistently demonstrated their lack of compassion and understanding for comprehensive drug reform. We should use this initiative to serve as a reminder that some lives have mattered more than others and that a persistent color line has been used to mete out justice. Eventually, we will have to tackle these pressing issues for all Americans because those who are addicted do not have the luxury to sit and wait.
Rutgers Student studying Political Science & Government with a minor in Journalism who has an interest in the intersection of journalism and political movements.