Reports circulated the media Thursday that President Donald Trump suggested the death penalty for drug dealers. While the President did not actually specifically mention the death penalty, he did call for much tougher penalties. The statements were given at an opioid summit on Thursday. In a related move, Attorney General Sessions will file a statement of interest in a group of lawsuits filed by local governments against the manufacturers and distributors of opioids.
President Trump pointed out that drug dealers cause the loss of many lives, so it may be appropriate to treat them as we would any other murderer. He also has mentioned that other countries which impose harsher penalties on drug dealers are doing a better job of reducing the use of opioids. Singapore has had some success using severe penalties against drug dealers but other places with severe penalties, like Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, still have large drug problems.
Critics of President Trump’s call for stronger penalties against drug dealers came from both Democrats and Republicans. Some pointed out that the US government has already tried the approach that the President is suggesting. The imprisonment of hundreds of drug dealers dating back to the 1980’s failed to reduce the supply of drugs and the price of some illegal drugs has fallen in the meantime, making it less expensive to abuse drugs. The problem is that as soon as you capture and imprison a dealer, there is another one waiting to take his place. There is evidence that many, if not most, drug dealers only do it to support their own drug addiction.
A set of recommendations was announced last November, but action on many of them has not been taken yet. Many had hoped that President Trump’s recent announcement that the opioid epidemic is a public health crisis would lead to increased funding for treatment and funding, but this has not yet been the case. Congress has reached a budget agreement including several billion dollars in spending to address the opioid crisis. President Trump has promised to roll out the administration’s policies over the next three weeks.
If severe penalties against drug dealers has been tried and failed, what other options might work? Interested parties have urged the administration to address the opioid problem as a health crisis. Further, concerted government action across all levels and involving various departments of the government is supported by many. Federal, state and local governments need to work together to make sure proper treatment is available for people addicted to opioids. In the same way, various departments of the federal government should be working in concert to address the epidemic. It’s way past time for different departments of the government to multiply the same type of program. When you have several different agencies providing the same services, you really only end up with an excess of management – costs that could have been spent on increasing services. Increased funding for treatment would result in a smaller market for drugs. Spending money on treatment seems more beneficial than spending money to keep somebody in a prison.
President Trump’s own Surgeon General has spoken about the need for earlier intervention for addicts and improved mental health services, which he feels would reduce drug-related crime and imprisonment. The Surgeon General, speaking of his brother who is currently in prison for crimes connected with his drug addiction, stated: “The question I ask myself is how many opportunities did we miss earlier . . . to have connected him to care so that he didn’t continue to go down his addiction pathway, his criminal pathway.” Some public health experts advocated for a greater focus on prevention efforts.
Improved access to treatment is a clear step in the right direction. So is increased cooperative action among all governmental authorities. Alex Azar, HHS Secretary, urged increasing the availability of treatment programs and encouraged more research regarding non-opioid pain therapies. Opioid pain management has shown itself to be risky, due to the high possibility of addiction. More research needs to be done to find better and safer ways to manage chronic pain.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson discussed how communities can provide support and housing for people suffering from addiction. Currently, HHS is addressing the opioid epidemic with five major efforts:
Perhaps what is most needed is increased prevention. Policies and programs which help prevent the addiction from even getting started.
President Trump’s remarks also addressed pharmaceutical companies and distributors who supply prescription painkillers in the U.S.. He supported lawsuits against such companies for their role in the opioid crisis. Such lawsuits would be based on the federal governments share of the costs of health programs and the costs for enforcement of current laws. While these companies are producing drugs that have been approved by the FDA, there have been suggestions that marketing has helped increase prescriptions for opioids.
President Trump may not have specifically called for the use of the death penalty against drug dealers, but he is calling for more severe penalties. The problem is that severe penalties have already been tried and weren’t successful. Increasing the availability of treatment for victims of opioid addiction will help, but we really need to get ahead of the game by researching safer treatments for chronic pain, and policies to prevent, rather than just treat, opioid addiction.
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