Donald Trump’s Instincts on Drugs Are All Wrong

The president’s tough-on-drugs mindset is a throwback to the 1980s and 90s.

Donald Trump
American president Donald Trump arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah, December 4, 2017 (ANG/Annie Edwards)

Axios reports that President Donald Trump envies countries that execute drug dealers, tells confidants a softer approach to drug reform will never work and that America needs to teach its children they’ll die if they take drugs.

His administration is looking into triggering five-year mandatory minimum sentences for traffickers who deal as little as two grams of fentanyl. Currently, the threshold is forty grams.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be lethal in extremely small doses. Overdose deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids have increased sixfold since 2013, outstripping those from every other drug.

But a crackdown won’t help.

Why fentanyl?

Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York magazine the other week that fentanyl use has risen for two reasons:

  1. Its potency in small doses makes it easier, and less risky, to smuggle than heroin. The iron law of prohibition, as first stipulated by activist Richard Cowan in 1986, is that the more intense the crackdown, “the more potent the drugs will become.”
  2. It is increasingly used by Americans who got hooked on prescription drugs (between 1999 and 2011, oxycodone prescriptions increased sixfold) and were then cut off by their doctors (between 2010 and 2015, opioid prescriptions fell by 18 percent).


Most Americans now recognize that addiction is better treated as a public-health, rather than a law-enforcement, problem.

But Trump is stuck in the tough-on-drugs mindset of the 1980s and 90s, which only led to mass incarcerations, not a decrease in drug use.

For many Trump voters, this is a betrayal. The places that suffer the worst from opioid addiction — postindustrial states like Kentucky and West Virginia — pinned their hopes on him.

Trump promised not to cut Medicaid.

He promised to “work with” addicts and “make them better”.

He is doing the opposite.


Some 1.2 million Americans with substance abuse disorders have been able to afford care for the first time through Barack Obama’s Medicaid expansion. Yet this program Trump and Republicans in Congress want to cut.

Trump’s budget proposal also calls for deep cuts in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, will barely admit cannabis is less harmful than heroin and argues for re-criminalizing medical marijuana.

Far from lifting the stigma on addiction, Trump has confirmed it with every action and statement he has made on drugs as president.