America has never been good at dealing with drug crises.
In the case of our most immediate drug crisis, the opioid epidemic, Donald Trump has vaguely talked about the need to help addicts and their families—but is short on any real monetary investment to combat the crisis, save a few fear-mongering anti-drug television ads and “solutions that have been available since day one of his administration,” according to former President Barack Obama’s former director of National Drug Control Policy.
The one “new” solution he does offer, essentially, is punishment for opioid dealers; one of Trump’s most headline-grabbing ideas, which he announced in March, was to introduce the death penalty for drug dealers. A few days later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed all U.S. attorneys to seek the death penalty for drug dealers whenever it’s “appropriate.”
States have a hard enough time getting the drugs to carry out the death penalty for murders as it is, so it’s questionable that they’ll be able to execute people for drug offenses. But some states and localities are already prosecuting people for selling drugs that others overdose on—even though some of them are users themselves—and seeking long, unjust sentences for those users.
A Vox report in 2017 found that at least 16 states have passed such punitive drug laws in response to the opioid crisis since 2011, including harsher penalties related to opioids and even drug homicide laws. When looking at the ramifications of these policies on actual people, it’s clear just how wrongheaded they are.
In one case in Pennsylvania, which Daniel Denvir reported on for Slate earlier this year, a woman named Gwendolyn Prebish—who, apart from being addicted to opioids, has battled mental illness for nearly her entire life— is facing 40 years in prison after selling a lethal dose of fentanyl to a fellow user, a man whom Prebish told Denvir had sold her heroin before in the past.
It gets even worse: In one story in Florida which Vox cited, an 18-year old woman overdosed and died after being sold fentanyl. Prosecutors charged the man who sold it to her with murder and they charged two men with whom she bought the drugs with manslaughter. “That’s a never-ending job that we undertake, constantly pursuing drug dealers,” a chief detective for Clay County said at the time. “What we are trying to do, and will do further on any overdose case we respond to, is we will be treating it as a homicide.”
It’s also necessary to remember that the prosecution of nonviolent crimes like drug offenses disproportionately impact people of color, and under Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department, it’s highly unlikely that anything would be done to stop that problem from being exacerbated. Communities are still recovering from the generational impact of the crack epidemic and the government response to it, especially in the inequities in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine. While the narrative of the opioid epidemic has largely been rendered as an affliction of the white poor and working class, a CDC report found that black Americans living in cities have seen the sharpest rise in overdoses, NPR reported earlier this year.
Women, too, are disproportionately affected by harsh drug laws. As the AP reported in May, women are the fastest-growing prison population in America, and the arrest rate for women charged with drug possession tripled between 1980 and 2009, while it doubled for men.
While the federal government has been effectively twiddling its thumbs for the last several years, some states and local governments are experimenting with ways to end the crisis that don’t involve throwing people in jail. In Vermont—which obtained a special Medicaid waiver to help get the federal funds needed to do so—the state has implemented Hub and Spoke, which models opioid treatment after the rest of the healthcare system. With this program, intensive treatment (which includes methadone, an oft-criticized but effective form of therapy) is followed by long-term care to help put the patient in the best possible position to stay sober.
As Vox reported last year, the state still faces challenges, but it’s all but eliminated long wait times at those intensive treatment centers, and Vermont’s drug overdose rate in 2016, according to the CDC, was substantially lower than its neighbors elsewhere in New England.
Ignoring the justice system’s past failures on dealing with drug crises helps no one. Throwing drug dealers and drug users in jail is ineffective, and killing them—as Trump and Sessions would have federal prosecutors do—is a human rights violation.
Neither Vermont nor any other state or city has landed on a permanent solution to deal with the opioid crisis. But treating this crisis is a problem of public health rather than a problem of crime is an important step, one that would not only move towards ending an epidemic that’s ruined so many lives, but change the punishment-obsessed culture of the American justice system for the better.