In a major speech on Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlined several steps the Department of Justice will take to combat the opioid epidemic. Viewing the public health crisis through the lens of prohibition and law enforcement, Sessions announced that he will use money meant for police reform for drug enforcement instead.
“I am convinced that our law enforcement efforts save lives — because they prevent new addictions from starting,” Sessions said at the joint press conference with Acting DEA Administrator Rob Patterson. “By enforcing our laws, we help keep illegal drugs out of our country, reduce their availability, drive up their price, and reduce their purity.”
As one of the steps to help combat the opioid crisis, the Justice Department announced that it would be awarding approximately $12 million to anti-drug law enforcement programs through the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office. Of that cash, $7.19 million would be given in funding to the Anti-Heroin Task Force Program (AHTF), which supports narcotics investigations in states with the highest per capita level of opioid abuse. Another $5.03 million will be given to the COPS Anti-Methamphetamine Program (CAMP), similar to the AHTF except it focuses on methamphetamine, not heroin. Sessions also announced the establishment of a new Louisville Field Division for the DEA.
In making these grants, Sessions is re-modelling a program initially designed to improve accountability for local police departments into a grant program which favors the Attorney General’s view of policing — one that emphasizes drug prohibition, militarized police, and lack of accountability for abuse and systemic racism. There have been multiple examples of this during Sessions’ tenure as Attorney General. In February, Sessions said he would scale back the federal government’s monitoring of troubled police forces, before announcing in September that the Justice Department, via COPS, would no longer audit reports about those police departments nor suggest reforms that they could carry out. Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel of the ACLU, described the decision as “truly appalling”.
“This program was a voluntary and collaborative partnership between the Department of Justice, law enforcement, and local officials,” she said at the time. “[It] provided police departments with the tools needed to advance practices against excessive force and biased policing.”
Earlier in November, Sessions continued his run of using COPS to further his own judicial philosophy, announcing nearly $100 million in grants through the COPS Hiring Program to local police departments — 80 per cent of which had agreed to cooperate with federal immigration authorities removing undocumented migrants.
President Donald Trump has made a song and dance about declaring the opioid crisis a public health emergency while also limiting the resources that public health experts say is needed to combat opioid addiction.When Trump declared in October that opioids were a national public health emergency, he provided no new funding. Instead, he said the Public Health Emergency Fund could now be used for opioids, but it currently only has $57,000. Nor did Trump prioritize access to the overdose reversal drug naxolone in his declaration. Instead, the Trump administration is kicking the can over to law enforcement, who have responded as they have throughout the War on Drugs — with raids and arrests that have limited impact on Americans’ ability to get drugs, become addicted to them, and die.
“Even though the response to opioids has been less punitive than, say, the response to crack in the 1980s, because of the perception of who’s using, it has turned very punitive in the last couple of years,” Drug Policy Alliance expert Bill Piper told ThinkProgress. “When Trump talks about opioids or drugs generally, he can get very punitive-sounding. He talks about the law, he talks about Mexican gangs, and Sessions is even worse.”