opinion   |   column

COLUMN: Jeff Sessions' war on drugs would continue a failed approach



Last week, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that “drug trafficking is an inherently dangerous business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.”

He has used this thinking to resurrect the long-failed War on Drugs that goes against the growing bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. He has announced his intention to imprison more non-violent drug offenders, expand the police state, and crack down on medical marijuana users.

These things would happen in a country that already runs the largest prison system in the developed world, according to Prison Policy Initiative, and commits its penal labor, unprotected by the 13th amendment, to a life of modern slavery.

Where Sessions’ logic fails is his misunderstanding of the nature of black markets.

Drug trafficking is violent for the same reason liquor trafficking was violent in the Prohibition era. When markets aren’t protected by the state’s monopoly on violence, parties can afford to renege on their contracts and promises.

Illegality motivates traffickers to take enforcement into their own hands. Decriminalizing and taxing dispensaries, like what Massachusetts, Washington and Colorado have done with marijuana, undercuts the illicit market, weakening the power of criminals and reducing violence.

A revived “tough on crime” stance that attacks suppliers would do little to stop illicit drug consumption. Any economics teacher can tell you reducing supply in a market with inelastic demand—like the market for addictive substances—wouldn’t reduce the quantity bought and consumed.

Rather, it’s more likely that a crackdown on suppliers would simply raise prices. Similarly, researchers continue to find that tougher penalties and longer jail time does little difference in deterring crime than lighter sentences, according to the Sentencing Project.

It would be wiser of Sessions to realize that the worst drug epidemic of our time is not marijuana, methamphetamines, or even heroin, but prescription opioids.

Over two million Americans suffer from debilitating addictions to pain relievers, which is more than meth and heroin addicts combined, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

And the rate in Indiana is higher than the national average.

Perverse fiscal incentives for doctors and aggressive ad campaigns by big pharma companies have pushed opioids like Vicodin, OxyContin, and fentanyl onto millions of desperate people.

Sessions and our own state prosecutors could better spend their time taking on big pharma and the pain industry for things like false advertising, as the state legislature in Kentucky is doing, according to the Kentucky Law Journal.

A better drug policy would focus on the demand of drug consumption by supporting educational programs, supervised injections and rehabilitation.

Progressive public programs in Portugal, Canada, and the United Kingdom offer medical-grade heroin to addicts—which undercuts the black market—supervise injection sites, and mandate the inclusion of substance abuse treatment in public insurance programs, none of which is addressed in the Republican health care proposals, according to Mother Jones.

We could go a long way to a healthier, more secure public by transitioning opioid-based painkillers to cannabinoids and rewriting the fiscal incentives that lead doctors to over-prescribe, according to the Washington Post.

To be clear, I support a drug policy that reduces dependency, violent crime and minimizes risks to public health.

Sessions, however, has failed to offer policies that achieve these goals. Rather, it seems that people like him sacrifice the well-being of vulnerable Americans on the altar of wishful thinking.

It’s time for change.

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