Trump’s and Sessions’s drug policies manage to be both racially discriminatory and totally toothless

The White House favors a treatment-based approach for heroin addicts, who are overwhelmingly white, and a penal approach to those arrested for marijuana possession, who are more likely to be black.
The White House favors a treatment-based approach for heroin addicts, who are overwhelmingly white, and a penal approach to those arrested for marijuana possession, who are more likely to be black.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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On Monday, first daughter Ivanka Trump told the hosts of Fox & Friends she was surprised by the “viciousness” of critics responding to her father’s presidency. “It is hard,” she lamented, “and there is a level of viciousness I was not expecting … I was a little blindsided by it on a personal level.” The remark drew wide-scale derision across social media. There is a reluctance to empathize with Ivanka’s experience, given the personal nature of her father’s attacks along the campaign trail, which targeted not only his opponents, but a disabled journalist, the parents of a fallen soldier, and even a former beauty queen.

But reactions largely overlooked an insight-lending, albeit edgewise comment made by the first daughter. “At the end of the day, if you want to think about difficult, it’s the factory worker who’s been laid off,” she said. “Difficult is the mother who lost a child to opioid abuse. So these are the real challenges and I think that does put it in perspective.”

Indeed, it seems little attention is paid these days to the Trump administration’s mission to eradicate opioid abuse. In March, the White House established a commission, headed by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, to tackle the problem. This follows through on a campaign-trail promise made in New Hampshire in October of 2016—New Hampshire being the state considered “ground zero” for the national opioid epidemic.

It’s tough to reconcile the administration’s articulated interest in combatting opioid abuse with its positioning on drug use of other strains. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, endorses an infamously draconian stance on anti-drug enforcement. In May, he personally wrote members of Congress asking them to lift the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which bars the Justice Department from using federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana providers. That same month, Sessions ordered a rollback of policies put in place by president Obama to lessen penalties on low-level drug offenders.

And there’s an evident disparity in who does time for such offenses. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), roughly five times as many white Americans use drugs as black Americans, but black Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at ten times the rate of white Americans. Black Americans represent only 12% of the drug-using population, but 59% of those in state prisons for drug-related offenses. And black Americans serve almost the same length of sentence for such offenses (about 59 months, on average) as white Americans serve for violent offenses (about 62 months).

It would appear that Sessions and the White House are out of step on drug policy. Sessions evidently prefers a penal solution, Trump prefers one that is treatment-based. But in reality, these are two plans for two separate problems.

Opioid abuse, centering on heroin addiction, is predominantly a white problem. In 2014, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that 90% of users trying heroin for the first time were white. “Heroin use has changed from an inner-city, minority-centered problem to one that has a more widespread geographical distribution, involving primarily white men and women in their late 20s living outside urban areas,” JAMA reported. State governments have reacted by enacting laws that make naxalone—a prescription drug sold under the brand name Narcan, that mitigates the effects of opioid overdose—more widely and readily available. Thanks to a 2015 measure enacted by governor John Kasich, pharmacists in Ohio can dispense the drug without a prescription.

Meanwhile, the issue of marijuana usage is attacked almost strictly on a penal basis. According to a report in the New York Times, police made more than 8 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010—nine out of ten of those arrests were for possession alone (no intent to sell). And arrest for possession of marijuana is roughly eight times more likely if the offender is black, according to data compiled by The Washington Post in 2013.

And these were the Obama years. Under Sessions’s enforcement-over-treatment marijuana policies, it’s far more likely trends will worsen than reverse.

Such a disparate approach to two unique drug problems is no accident. An outwardly compassionate approach to opioid addicts serves to build up the administration’s humanitarian credentials in such a way that does not threaten its white, working-class base of support. A white voter in the Rust Belt may have likelier empathy for the heroin addict—they may have lost a friend or loved one to the drug, or perhaps live in a community gripped by abuse—than the black man given a disproportionate sentence for marijuana possession.

Polling indicates that empathy for communities of color is a non-starter for many Trump voters. Two recent studies found that votes for the president in the general election were driven chiefly by “racial anxiety,” and a belief that the struggles of white, working-class America directly precipitated from the previous administration’s supposedly preferential treatment of minority groups.

It is arguable, however, that the Trump administration has no real interest in resolving drug addiction for anyone, race regardless. The federal budget for 2018 calls for a 95% funding cut to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which is responsible for organizing drug-treatment programming across federal agencies—from $280 million to $24 million.

The president’s budget must be approved by Congress before it goes into effect, and approval of the plan in its current form is unlikely, many say. Still, proposed cuts to ONDCP demonstrate that this administration harbors no concrete will to address America’s opioid problem, even on a superficial level.

The cuts are “at odds with the fact that the president has tasked us with supporting his Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis,” the ONDCP director wrote in an email to his staff after release of the proposed budget. “These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking … I don’t want to see this happen.”