All my life I’ve been hearing about the drug problem, but mostly what I’ve heard are attempts to dodge responsibility. Those attempts have taken two main forms:
- It’s not my problem. The middle-aged, middle-and-upper-class whites who run the country project the problem onto inner-city blacks or white-trash teens, who can be written off. In other words: I don’t need to do anything, they just need to shape up.
- The solution is to punish somebody else. The problem isn’t the American demand for drugs, it’s the supply chain. If we just extend the death penalty to pushers, or seal the border, or launch para-military operations against drug cartels, or spray enough herbicide on the poppy fields of Afghanistan or the coca fields of Columbia, that’ll fix it.
In recent years, though, that first dodge has been breaking down. The opioid problem has started to climb up the national agenda not just because the overall number of deaths has increased, but because drug abuse has increasingly begun to affect whites, rural and suburban communities, and people who are both over 30 and above the poverty line. In cynical political terms: people who matter.
Let’s review a little: Drug overdoses killed 52,000 Americans in 2015. That’s more than car accidents (35K) or gun deaths (36K). The National Institute of Health estimated that in 2013, 1.9 million Americans were dependent on pain relievers, with another million or so dependent on heroin, sedatives, and tranquilizers.
That’s such a big deal that it’s pushing down the national life-expectancy-at-birth numbers, which in 2015 fell for the first time since 1993, from 78.9 to 78.8. (That’s the National Center for Health Statistics number. For cross-country comparisons, the World Health Organization figures slightly differently. It rates the U.S. at 79.3, well below Japan at 83.7 and culturally similar Canada at 82.2.)
But what makes this a politically serious problem is that it’s hitting white people: The 2015 national life expectancy decline might turn out to be a statistical anomaly, but white life expectancy has barely budged since 2010.
That doesn’t just change the importance of the problem, it changes the rhetoric. If drugs aren’t just a problem for “those people”, then we can’t solve it by telling them to shape up. The rhetoric has to soften, and lean more towards empathy than tough love. During the campaign, Trump said this about the opioid problem:
We’re going to take all of these kids — and people, not just kids — that are totally addicted and they can’t break it. We’re going to work with them, we’re going to spend the money, we’re gonna get that habit broken.
But so far that’s been a shaky promise. The for-now abandoned TrumpCare plan would have eliminated the ObamaCare mandate that insurance policies cover addiction treatment, not to mention the millions of people it would have left without insurance entirely. He claimed to increase funding for addiction prevention and treatment by $500 million, but apparently that was just him taking credit for the 21st Century Cures Act passed under Obama.
But Wednesday was opioid abuse day at the White House, so Trump appointed a commission that will issue a report in October. That’s some real action for you.
While he waits for that report Trump continues to use the second dodge: He’s spinning drugs as a border-protection issue that the Wall will solve. Wednesday, after listening to several people’s stories of addiction that began with prescription drugs, he said:
So it’s been really — it spiked over the last eight to ten years. Would that have anything to do with the weakening of the borders? Because a lot of it comes from the southern border.
Like so many Trump statements, this presents a thicket of misperceptions that you have to hack your way through. First, the border hasn’t “weakened” in recent years. We’ve had more fences and border agents than ever, and fewer people crossing illegally.
And then we get to the reality of the drug problem: About a third of the 52,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2015 were from prescription drugs, and many of the illegal-drug ODs are simply the end of a story that began with legal drugs. Even if we could shut off all the heroin and fentanyl coming from overseas — it’s mostly from Mexico right now, but that doesn’t mean drug importers would give up if we capped that particular pipe — the problem wouldn’t be solved.
And then there’s the assumption that the Wall would stop Mexican drugs cold. Even granting the shaky assumption that Mexico lags behind in crucial ladder technology, bags of pills or powder are not that hard to throw. Fill a football with them, and any high school quarterback could complete the pass.
In short, the only real way to attack this problem is on the demand side, not the supply side. We have to prevent people getting addicted to prescription opioids, and help current addicts (to both legal and illegal drugs) quit. The Great Wall of Mexico won’t do that.
What would? Three things:
- Finding ways to manage chronic pain without addictive drugs.
- Reducing the overall level of despair among people that the 21st-century economy is leaving behind — over-50 folks in rural areas as well as non-white inner-city youth.
- Funding effective rehab programs for everybody who wants to quit.
None of those is a just-do-it thing. We know how to build walls, but chronic pain and despair and effective rehab are much harder questions. The difference is: They’re the right questions, rather than just new ways to dodge the problem.