A week-long specialized opioid policing operation in Arizona seized 0.2 grams of heroin in March, inadvertently illustrating the shortcomings of the Trump administration’s response to the overdose and addiction epidemic.
Officers from a half-dozen agencies also netted more meaningful quantities of marijuana and methamphetamine in the eight-day crackdown, which was convened under the aegis of the Interior Department’s (DOI) Opioid Reduction Task Force.
While this particular task force is new, the approach it represents to mitigating social harms associated with opioid misuse and heroin trafficking is as old as the War on Drugs. Interagency operations with special, dedicated streams of funding have been an important piece of that war’s public relations component for decades. They afford executive staffs of various interested parties a chance to put “dope on the table” at press conferences, tallying up the arrests and drug seizures stats from task-force operations to project strength.
And in this case, the DOI task force – despite its nominal focus on opioids – is also being used to expand the administration’s immigration dragnet.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers participate in the task force’s operations alongside local tribal police departments and federal drug cops. The cross-breeding of drug policing and immigration enforcement far from the border checkpoints where most illegal drugs are trafficked into the United States reflects President Donald Trump’s broader approach to both the opioid crisis and the fear-and-smear approach he’s taken to migrants writ large. Despite his efforts to duct-tape the two issues together in Americans’ minds, the stubborn reality remains that a border wall won’t impair smuggling operations that already route through official ports of entry.
The DOI opioids team stopped and searched more than 100 vehicles during this most recent week of concentrated interdiction. The agency did not answer questions about the operation from Reason magazine, which was first to report on the latest foibles of a task force whose earlier stings had produced more substantial quantities of heroin, fentanyl, and prescription pills.
The paltry takings from all that interference in people’s lives – one small bag of the drug the task force ostensibly exists to pursue, equivalent to just a handful of individual doses – may hurt DOI’s efforts to secure a four-fold jump in funding for the task force from House budget decisionmakers.
A senior DOI official made the case for extra spending in late March, telling appropriators that the Task Force had netted “more than 180 arrests and [the] seizure of more than 1,000 pounds of narcotics…that were intended for sale in Indian Country” in its first year.
The department hopes those numbers will persuade lawmakers to boost the task force’s funding line from $2.5 million in the current fiscal year to $10 million for 2020.
They should not.
The underlying premise that Native American and American Indian populations deserve special attention from those attempting to solve the opioid crisis is well supported by studies of drug use in Bureau of Indian Affairs jurisdictions — but the idea that guns and handcuffs are the right way to deliver that extra care is long debunked.
Effective policing of drug sales doesn’t make drug users want drugs less. It just puts them in greater danger, as smugglers switch to deadlier concentrated substances that are harder for police to catch. The drug war’s fundamental flaw is that it chases the supply end of a market that only exists because federal prohibitions on narcotics make the substances hugely profitable.
When people struggling with addiction can obtain the drug they’re physiologically dependent upon in a safe way that also brings them in contact with addiction specialists and medical professionals who can counsel them toward a healthy exit from the volatile chemical cycle in which they’re trapped, they die much less often. Safe injection sites, ample and dignified rehab facilities, and even the outright legalization and medicalization of heroin itself, have been proven time and time again to deliver more positive change faster and at less expense that equivalent investments in tough-guy crackdowns like the DOI Task Force.
Even if leaders are bound and determined to stick with the old, failed lock-em-up strategy, the extensive and costly task force rubric DOI has adapted here is targeting the wrong end of the supply chain. The same pills and powders these officers are chasing around the desert were manufactured somewhere – likely in China, in the case of the extra-lethal synthetic heroin compound fentanyl – and could be more effectively curbed at the source.
Such a policy would still be a foolish misdirection of resources away from the treatment, regulation, and safe use sites policies that drug epidemiologists know are actually effective in weaning addicts off their poisons. But it would be better than the current disruptive, ineffectual ground-level policing strategies driving the DOI task force and its peers in other corners of the law enforcement world.
Sometimes those efforts haul in pounds and pounds of heroin. Sometimes all they find is a dime bag. Either way, they aren’t making anyone who’s flirting with the deadly edge of the drug abuse cycle any safer.