Advocates Denounce White House Opioid Commission’s Emphasis on Drug Courts and Proposed Increase in Drug Sentences

Press Release November 1, 2017
Media Contact

Tony Newman 646-335-5384
Grant Smith 202-669-6573

Today, President Trump’s bipartisan opioid commission released its final report detailing more than fifty recommendations for addressing the opioid overdose crisis.
In addition to several health-oriented recommendations, the commission proposed the launch of a federally-funded mass media campaign that Gov. Chris Christie, the chair of the commission, said in remarks today at the White House was essential to addressing the stigmatization of addiction. Advocates are concerned, however, that this well-intentioned recommendation for a White House media campaign could backfire in the hands of President Trump, who just last week said he wants a “just say no”-style mass advertising campaign.
The commission also made recommendations that are troubling to advocates, such as enhancing criminal penalties for fentanyl and expanding drug courts.
The commission proposed that the White House coordinate a mass media campaign designed to address “the hazards of substance use, the danger of opioids, and stigma.” If implemented by the Trump administration, this campaign would not be the first White House drug media campaign. More than $1.5 billion was spent on the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, a campaign coordinated by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the 1990s and 2000s. This long running campaign was an utter failure, in large part because it broadcasted exaggerated claims about marijuana and other drugs, and was anchored to “just say no”-style messaging. In fact, eight separate government evaluations concluded that the last White House mass-media campaign had no measurable impact on drug use among youth. Two of these studies found the ads might make some teenagers more likely to start using drugs.
One of the commission’s most high-profile recommendations is a major nationwide expansion of drug courts – yet available research does not support their continued expansion. Most drug courts do not reduce imprisonment, do not save money or improve public safety, and ultimately fail to help people struggling with drug problems. Today’s drug courts are no more effective — but are considerably more costly — than voluntary treatment, with participants often spending more time behind bars than those whose cases are handled by conventional courts. While the commission has recommended that drug courts provide access to medication-assisted treatments, it would be far more valuable to offer such treatments on a voluntary basis, without subjecting people who are struggling with addiction to the criminal justice system.
“President Trump’s remarks on the opioid overdose crisis last week emphasized a ‘just say no’ approach and escalating the drug war,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance.  “The opioid commission was a mixed bag, with some good public health recommendations. The question now is how will they stand up to President Trump’s punitive approach to the opioid overdose crisis?”
The commission’s report comes just days after President Trump characterized the opioid overdose crisis as a “war” and outlined his administration’s plans to “defeat” it, including Reagan-era style “just say no” prevention campaigns, drug courts, building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, and increasing drug sentences.
“The overwhelming focus of Trump’s statements on drugs has not been on public health or even on the Christie commission’s recommendations, but rather on outdated, ineffective, punitive responses that have already caused tremendous harm in society,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Rather than helping people at risk of overdose and their families, Trump’s agenda seems to be to stoke fear, spread disinformation, and further stigmatize entire populations—whether they be immigrants or people who use drugs.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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