Kellyanne Conway sells mandatory minimums at influential drug conference

"If we want to disrupt the fentanyl trade, we need nuanced, careful, and sustained engagement with China. Instead the President is berating China on Twitter and igniting a trade war with them."

(Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
(Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway is on a campaign to sell the White House’s tough-on-crime approach to the opioid crisis.

Conway — who is for some reason in charge of the White House’s efforts to tackle the opioid crisis — pleaded with stakeholders at the largest annual conference on the epidemic on Wednesday to change fentanyl sentencing laws. She called for longer prison time for small-time fentanyl dealers and echoed the president’s call for the death penalty “in very special circumstances” for drug traffickers.

Conway’s comments highlight the White House’s misguided approach to the crisis. By demanding longer prison time for small-time fentanyl dealers, Conway may be criminalizing some of the drug users the White House should be trying to help. Addiction experts say this sort of strategy distracts from solutions that can actually save lives.

Fentanyl and other synthetic opiates are exacerbating the drug overdose death rate — one thing that Conway got right in her comments on Wednesday. But she said that the driving principle behind the White House’s mandatory minimum prison sentencing push is “the people I’ve met who have lost their loved ones and the law enforcement that feels like they can’t get their arms around this crisis.”


“Some estimates say two milligrams of fentanyl is a lethal dose and it could kill one person. So under our current sentencing guidelines, you need 20,000 lethal doses — 20,000 lethal doses — to trigger the mandatory minimums,” Conway said. “People hear that and they just shake their heads, ‘how can that be.’ And so what the president is asking Congress to do is lower the threshold so that the sentences can start at a lower threshold.”

The people she’s talking about won’t be helped by mandatory minimum sentences. But that hasn’t stopped the White House or Congress from moving forward with the idea.

Last month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued guidance calling on U.S. attorneys to seek the death penalty “for certain drug-related crimes.”

Also last month, six Republican senators introduced a bill that would reduce the amount of fentanyl and its analogues required for mandatory sentencing minimums. Under this legislation, .5 grams substance containing fentanyl would get a minimum of five years, as opposed to current law which requires 10 grams.


In effect that could incarcerate some drug users, who might sell to enable addiction and don’t realize the substance is laced with fentanyl. That means five years, for example, if “1 gram of heroin (personal use) that is cut with tiny speck of fentanyl,” drug reporter Zachary Siegel said on Twitter.

Congress is aiming to vote on legislation that addresses the opioid epidemic by Memorial Day, and public health experts hope prevention, treatment, and support are among the priorities — not penalties.

Lawmakers should think about, for example, increasing access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone or eliminating archaic barriers to prescribing treatments, said Omar Manejwala, Chief Medical Officer of Catasys and an expert on addiction and the opioid crisis.

“What’s sad about the national discourse is that while we split hairs over how to stiffen sentencing or use the death penalty that we aren’t applying the same–or even nearly the same–effort to solving for the real drivers of this crisis such as untreated mental illness, inadequate prevention and treatment investment and workforce, social determinants of health and other structural barriers to care,” Manejwala told ThinkProgress over email.

And even hiking mandatory minimums would have little practical effect as “Congress only controls federal law enforcement efforts, when almost all enforcement is operated by states and localities,” said Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University researcher who has extensively written about the opioid crisis and this specific topic.

Alternatively, Humphreys suggests that if the White House wants to disrupt the fentanyl trade, they need to engage in nuanced conversations with China, which is where most fentanyl is produced.


“Instead the President is berating China on Twitter and igniting a trade war with them,” Humphreys told ThinkProgress in an email. “That ensures fentanyl will continue to be produced at high levels in China and shipped to our country.”

The Trump administration did announce some positive news at the drug conference. The National Institutes of Health launched a $500 million project to build on research into prevention and treatments intended to stem the crisis.