Sessions’ new crackdown on drug prescribers won’t stop the opioid crisis

Treating the problem as a law enforcement issue, rather than a public health crisis.

FILE PICTURE: Jeff Sessions speaks at the DEA graduation ceremony, 26 January.
FILE PICTURE: Jeff Sessions speaks at the DEA graduation ceremony, 26 January.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Wednesday that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) would be undertaking a 45-day “surge” in a bid to crack down on prescribers and pharmacies that have been handing out unusually large amounts of prescription narcotics.

“Our country is in the midst of a drug abuse crisis, enabled and worsened by… prescription drug diversion,” Sessions said in a statement. “This surge of resources by the [DEA] will help us make more arrests, secure more convictions, and reduce the number of diverted or unnecessary prescription drugs causing addiction and overdose.”

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The statement added that the DEA would be looking at tens of millions of transaction reports to identify prescribers who may be dispensing suspiciously large amounts of prescription drugs.

There is no questioning the deadly nature of the opioid epidemic, which in 2016 killed more people than firearms and was a key factor in making U.S. life expectancy drop for the second consecutive year. But in an attempt to counter the epidemic, the Trump administration is doubling down on a strategy that approaches the crisis through a law enforcement perspective, instead of a public health one.

President Donald Trump touted his administration’s approach during Tuesday’s State of the Union speech — applauding their efforts when in reality, his administration has actually done very little to combat the opioid epidemic.

“We must get tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge,” Trump said.

But experts have explained that looking at the opioid epidemic as an issue for law enforcement, rather than a public health crisis, only drives drug users to more dangerous alternatives. “Restricting supply doesn’t help when demand is still there,” Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies told ThinkProgress’ Alan Pyke last year. “You end up with more compact, easier to smuggle and more powerful commodities. It’s like how alcohol prohibition turned a nation of beer and wine drinkers into a nation of liquor drinkers. If you’re a bootlegger, the last thing you want to smuggle is beer.”

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The Trump administration has pledged to do everything it can to tackle the opioid crisis — including taking away cash that was meant to be used to help with police reform — but most efforts so far have amounted to a lot of talk and little action. Last October, Trump gave a press conference in the East Room where he gravely declared opioids a national public health emergency, but just four of his thirty executive actions were initiated after the press conference, and a good portion of them actually began under President Barack Obama.

Sessions, meanwhile, seems to be dedicated to expending law enforcement resources in an attempt to combat another drug “surge”: the rapidly growing legal marijuana industry. Earlier in January, Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance that urged federal law enforcement to stay out of states’ legalization efforts. The attorney general is adamant that it would help “tackle the growing drug crisis” despite the billions of tax dollars that legal weed was bringing in and its massive popularity.

Another worrying effect of Sessions and Trump’s tough talk about opioids has been the trickle-down effect it has had on state and local policy ideas. Instead of attempting to break the cycle of addiction, some politicians are now focusing more on punitive measures — like Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), who has previously said that gun owners should kill drug dealers and that men with stereotypically black names are importing heroin into his state.

“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,” Drug Policy Alliance expert Bill Piper told ThinkProgress. “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.”