May 1st, 2017

War On Drugs Redux

On April 21st, President Trump dismissed Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. He had almost 2 years remaining on his four-year term and was well respected for his management of the Ebola and Zika outbreaks. Last November, he won the admiration of the addiction treatment community when he issued a comprehensive report on addiction in America. His firing, along with the nomination of Republican Congressman Tom Marino as head of the White House Office of National Drug Policy (the “drug czar”), makes the current direction of drug policy under the Trump administration a disappointment. Coming after the “hard line” statements of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it’s clear this team will try to take the country back to a dark and painful place from which it was finally emerging. Their success would represent a victory for ignorance, emotion, and ideology over fact and experience.

Particularly disheartening are comments that reveal a profound lack of awareness about past efforts. Marino has indicated that he could change his mind about medical cannabis “if we had a really in-depth medical scientific study if it does help people one way or another.” We already do, in fact, have those studies. They have been done primarily outside the United States because the Drug Enforcement Administration has suppressed cannabis research.

Marino also recommends “jail/hospitals” as primary interventions for people using illegal drugs. This idea was implemented in 1935 at the Federal Civil Commitment Center in Lexington, Kentucky, also known as “The U.S. Narcotics Farm.” After an almost 40-year effort, the program was discontinued for being insufficiently effective.

Equally depressing are statements by Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggesting simple solutions, like Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no!” campaign. This betrays a frightening lack of understanding about what’s necessary to address the complex problems of substance use and addiction.

Hopefully, if and when these previously ineffective policies fail again, a course adjustment will occur using methods that work. Alternatively, I may just have to accept that the addiction-related achievements of the Obama/Biden administration represented a high-water mark that will serve as an inspiration for future administrations.

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