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Renewing the War on Drugs

What looks like a “split personality” in drug policy is really just the Trump administration’s racialized approach to enforcement.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during an opioid and drug abuse listening session with President Donald Trump, Wednesday, March 29, 2017, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. From left are, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Trump, Sessions, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during an opioid and drug abuse listening session with President Donald Trump. (Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

On Wednesday, the White House issued an executive order to establish a commission on combating drug addiction, and we now know that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will head it. The Christie appointment seems to signal a soft approach to handling drug problems, given his own experience addressing it in New Jersey. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that this new commission has created a “split personality” within the administration’s drugs policy, given that it seems to clash with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s more punitive approach.

Reads the WSJ:

The tug of war in the new administration reflects its two different constituencies: traditional conservatives, who favor a crackdown on crime that the president frequently links to illegal immigration and urban areas, and the white, working-class and rural communities who welcome a compassionate focus on the opioid epidemic that has ravaged their neighborhoods.

Translation: White people will get rehabilitation. Black and Latino people will get incarceration.

Or, as the Drug Policy Alliance deputy director Michael Collins said in the WSJ article: “We’re seeing the beginning of a new war on drugs.”

It never really went away. While the incarceration rate at the federal level may have dropped slightly in the past few years, the bulk of the incarceration problem rests inside state prisons and local jails. Also, a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that the arrests for drug possession have actually increased in recent years.
(Prison Policy Initiative)

Attorney General Sessions would like to see those numbers keep going up. We know that Sessions thinks medical marijuana is “stupid,” really fancies that old Nancy Reagan motto, “just say no,” and is willing to crack heads to show he means business. Doing this would, of course, reverse the headway the federal government has made in recent years to alleviate the mass incarceration crisis created, in part, by the inaugural War on Drugs. Decades of research and testimonies from law enforcement officials profess that the lock ‘em up approach doesn’t work, but medical rehabilitation does.

Such treatment-over-incarceration findings are likely understood in the White House, as well as in Sessions’s Justice Department, and it will probably be applied accordingly—in “white, working-class and rural communities,” just not in “urban areas.”

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