On Monday, Mr Trump travelled to Manchester, New Hampshire, to take on one of his great domestic challenges: America’s crippling addiction to opioids. More than two million Americans are dependent on prescription pain pills and street drugs, and the country now averages around 120 deaths per day due to overdoses. Whole communities have been decimated.
“If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time,” Mr Trump declared. “And that toughness includes the death penalty.”
Rebukes have been swift. Jesslyn McCurdy, the deputy director of the influential American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, called the proposal “absurd.” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a leading Democrat, also pushed back: “We can’t arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic.”
But just focusing on this one part of Mr Trump’s forty-minute speech is missing the point. Not for the first time, the media’s tendency to focus on the sensational over the substantive means we risk underestimating the significance of this administration’s policies.
In this case, executing drug dealers simply won’t happen. It is, in large part, bad policy. Whilst there is intuitive appeal to the idea of taking out the ‘kingpins’, there is scant evidence that it actually works. It is true that Singapore employs capital punishment for drug dealers and has low drug abuse rates, but this is probably correlation rather than causation, because Iran also has capital punishment for drug dealers and yet, like America, has a huge opioid addiction problem.
More than this, though, there is no chance of this actually happening in the United States, and Mr Trump knows it. Extensions of death penalty would require Congress to pass new law, which is will not do, and even then years (and possibly decades) would pass before all the subsequent legal challenges could pass through the courts. The president knows this, and said so himself in Monday’s speech “Now maybe our country’s not ready for that. It’s possible, it’s possible.”
This is why, to really appraise his plan, we should look at its other prongs. They are sensible, research-based, and might just work.
First, Mr Trump seems to understand that the root cause of many addictions is the excessive number of pain medication prescriptions. He now says that government healthcare programmes will be amended to cut opioid prescriptions by a third over the next three years.
Second, he said that negligent pharmaceutical companies could face litigation, which is welcome news to those who worried that his fondness for big business might limit his willingness to take them on. “Our Department of Justice is looking very seriously at bringing major litigation against some of these drug companies,” Mr Trump said. “We’ll bring it at a federal level. Some states are already bringing it, but we’re thinking about bringing it at a very high federal level and we’ll do a job.” The fact that drug company stocks fell during the speech implies that the sector knows it is partly responsible and will need to raise its game.
Third, the plan includes funding for much needed staff and programming: the president will ask Congress to appropriate $6bn in new funding in 2018-2019.
Fourth, much of this new cash will go towards a new education programme of online and television ads to make teenagers and young adults think twice before trying opioids. This move might, hopefully, stop the next generation from falling into the same vicious cycle that their parents and older siblings have succumbed to. “This epidemic can affect anyone, which is why we must educate everyone,” the president said.
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Finally, in an effort to battle the stigma which surrounds drug addiction and the communities which suffer from it, his administration has launched crisisnextdoor.gov. The website allows members of the public to tell their own stories of dealing with opioid abuse and see others’ stories in their towns and cities.
This is, then, a sensible, practical plan to try and alleviate one of the great ills of modern America. The president knew exactly what he was doing in his speech: the ‘death sentence’ line got all the coverage, and has been well-received by his red-blooded base, even though the core of the plan is actually fairly pragmatic.
Having travelled to Manchester, New Hampshire, myself last year, and having seen the limp, lifeless bodies slumped in alleyways, I don’t care how he packages his plans. As long as they work.
Benjamin Clayton is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.