What a strange time to be fighting to end the war on drugs and the mentality that gave rise to it. In recent years we’ve won a wide range of once-unimaginable victories and super-majorities of public support – and yet we now face the prospect of the federal government undoing our painstaking progress and committing newfangled atrocities that were unimaginable just a month or so ago.
There’s little doubt our incoming commander-in-chief is primed to launch a new war on drugs that could be worse than anything we’ve seen before. He has not just called for doubling down on draconian drug laws – he has also called for more private prisons, rejected restoring the right to vote for millions of Americans living with a felony conviction, and supported unconstitutional “stop and frisk” policing. He’s even said he’ll deal with opioid addiction by building a magical wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In perhaps the most chilling sign yet, the President-elect recently expressed support for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign of mass murder of poor people suspected of using or selling drugs. (And if you think what’s happening in the Philippines can’t in the U.S., it’s time for a wake-up call.)
Long before Trump unveiled his Cabinet of Horrors, his explicit appeals to the most racist, xenophobic elements of American society were foreboding given the drug war’s racist, xenophobic origins and the ongoing, disproportionate targeting, arrest, conviction and incarceration of people of color for drug law violations. Now that Trump’s Cabinet has taken shape, though, his administration has taken on even more sinister dimensions.
Many people initially hoped Trump might at least make good on his campaign promise to let marijuana legalization play out at the state level – but that appears unlikely given his choice for Attorney General is Jeff Sessions, a drug war extremist with a career-long history of racist comments and actions. In recent years, Sessions played a critical role in blocking efforts to reform sentencing policy, asset forfeiture, and marijuana laws. He’s likely to escalate the war on drugs by undermining civil rights, stifling state-level marijuana reforms that have drastically reduced arrests in communities of color, and rolling back any progress in policing and criminal justice made by the Obama administration. (The Drug Policy Alliance is fighting to put the brakes on Sessions’ nomination so please ask your Senator to oppose his nomination here.)
The rest of the Cabinet is looking almost as disturbing as Sessions (which is really saying something). Last week, Trump selected General John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly served as head of U.S. Southern Command, overseeing drug war efforts in Latin America. This guy is a true believer in the drug war, and it’s an ominous sign that he’s been tapped to head up Homeland Security (a role, it’s worth noting, that has not previously been occupied by someone from the military – yikes).
Rep. Tom Price, Trump’s choice for director of health and human services, has consistently voted against key medical marijuana measures in Congress. Price’s healthcare plan would no longer require insurers to cover addiction treatment, which would be a profoundly destructive step backwards.
Even Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is an anti-marijuana crusader who sued the state of Colorado in a futile attempt to overturn Colorado’s groundbreaking marijuana legalization law.
Trump hasn’t announced his “drug czar” yet but odds are it’ll be someone with an abhorrent track record. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a staunch opponent of sensible drug policies, is currently a leading candidate to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Bondi vigorously opposed Florida’s medical marijuana ballot measures in 2014 and 2016, and took a heavy-handed, counter-productive approach to her state’s problems with prescription opioids and new psychoactive substances.
This is the time when we find out what we’re really made of. This new administration is not just an attack on sensible drug polices – it’s an attack on civil and human rights, bent on unleashing vast destruction in historically oppressed communities that have long borne the brunt of the drug war.
It’s more essential than ever that we venture past our growing edges, join together with other movements, and walk the walk when it comes to social integrity and racial justice. It’s going to be a long, challenging struggle – and it will define how history judges us.
Jag Davies is the director of communications strategy for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Photo by Michael Vadon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons