The Opioid Crisis and the Drug War at a Crossroads
20 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2020
Date Written: October 15, 2019
With some leaders calling for an end to the drug war and others proposing to double down on it, U.S. drug policy appears to be at a crossroads. There is perhaps no better example of this dynamic than our response to the opioid epidemic. On the one hand, policymakers have implemented a number of modest harm reduction-oriented policies, including some that would have been unthinkable at the height of the war on drugs. On the other hand, the federal government has resumed seeking mandatory minimum penalties against lower-level drug offenders as part of what the Trump administration has referred to as a “war” on opioids. Trump has even proposed the death penalty for “drug dealers” and disturbingly praised Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, for carrying out a drug war in which there have been thousands of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug sellers and users.
This essay, written for the symposium Facing Opioids: Drug Enforcement & Health Policy in Today's Epidemic, considers the state of the war on drugs through the lens of the opioid crisis. I focus on two responses to the opioid epidemic — the pursuit of safe injection sites and the increase in drug-induced homicide prosecutions — that exemplify two divergent approaches: ending the drug war or doubling down on it. I argue that these two examples help to shed light on why turning enthusiasm for ending the drug war into concrete reform has been so challenging. In both cases, drug war supporters have been able to use long-dormant laws that were passed at the height of the drug war to frustrate reform efforts. Ending the drug war requires significant legislative change; reviving can be easily done with drug war-era laws that are already in place.
Keywords: safe injection sites, drug-induced homicide, opioid crisis, drug policy, drug law, war on drugs
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