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Back to the Future: The Trump Administration’s War on Drugs, Redux

At the height of the Reagan presidency, Americans were consumed by a cresting Cold War with the Soviet Union, an unprecedented, menacing anti-drug…



At the height of the Reagan presidency, Americans were consumed by a cresting Cold War with the Soviet Union, an unprecedented, menacing anti-drug campaign, a burgeoning public health crisis known as AIDS, and, oh yeah, a blockbuster of a movie Back to the Future.

If you missed the 1985 flick, just know that Rotten Tomatoes scores it at 96 percent, and it’s considered a comedy classic. Once a clever movie made in the service of fun, its undertones now reanimate the unbelievable—the Trump administration’s retro ‘War on Drugs.’

In the service of avengement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has coveted a return to the Reagan era, including policies that propelled mass incarceration and funded the private prison industry. Remarked Sessions, “I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use. But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable. I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana—so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.”

Sessions denies the reality that 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis and/or cannabidiol for medical purposes, along with the eight states that legalized both the medical and recreational use of cannabis. As a side note, Red and Blue ‘cannabis states’ combined surpass the voter threshold that nudged Trump into office. Just some food for thought.

Sessions ignores the 2017 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report, “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids.” While the 486-page report provides a comprehensive review of evidence related to the health effects and potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis, it reminds us that the lack of scientific evidence is due, in large part, to the federal government’s restriction of research. Despite the federal lockdown, the Academy’s report refutes the tired government insistence that cannabis is a ‘gateway drug.’

Similar to the Reagan administration’s crude and thoughtless response to the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Trump administration seriously fumbles in the face of its own public health crisis. Opioid addiction is claiming the lives of approximately 700 Americans per week. On scale, its numbers rival the HIV crisis. Its complexity cannot be dismissed with political platitudes. Its devastation shows little sign of abating.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2016 report, “Increase in Drugs and Opioid-Involved Deaths,” death rates from overdose and addiction grew from 12.3 per 100,000 people in 2010 to 16.3 in 2015. This significant increase spans 30 states. Every day, over 140 Americans die due to opioid-related causes. In contrast, there has never been a corroborated report of a cannabis overdose death.

As an alternative to traditional approaches such as abstinence, there is growing evidence that cannabis can help in ending drug addiction. Applied through Harm Reduction for populations who are opioid addicted, such as military veterans, controlled cannabis use has contributed to a decline in overdose deaths. As the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine noted in 2016, states with legal medical cannabis have up to 25 percent fewer overdose deaths than states without legal medical cannabis access.

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While Trump sporadically references the opioid crisis, there’s never been a Tweet calling out the pharmaceutical manufacture’s synthetic assault. White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, signaled in February: “I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around the country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people [by regulating the adult-use of marijuana].” ‘Big Pharma’ agrees.

State by state, Election Departments report that Big Pharma is a leading contributor to continued marijuana prohibition. They don’t hide how they feel about marijuana, yet they are crafty. The makers of Oxycontin and Vicodin were two of the largest contributors to The Partnership for Drug Free Kids and the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America, two groups that oppose marijuana legalization.

It’s no surprise that opioid-ravaged Ohio (a swing state) has stepped up as a new medical cannabis state. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that the Lieutenant Governor of Ohio, Mary Taylor, recently shared that her two adult sons have addiction issues, one of whom is seeking an undisclosed treatment regimen. It was brave for her to speak out. Ohio has yet to finalize its rules allowing cannabis as a treatment option, and it will require thoughtful activism to ensure legalization.

And the states push on. In June, Vermont’s Governor signed into law the Cannabis Expansion Bill. The “Feel the Bern” home state may consider adult-use legalization by year’s end. Pennsylvania, too. As of July 1, recreational sales started in Nevada, with California preparing for a January 2018 launch, thus expanding a compelling western states voter block.

None of these forward-thinking milestones dissuaded Sessions from invoking his call to action on March 15. His speech: “Efforts to Combat Violent Crime and Restore Public Safety Before Federal, State and Local Law Enforcement.” Sessions commingled marijuana with the opioid crisis by highlighting three main ways to fight the scourge of drugs: criminal enforcement, treatment (which often comes too late to save users from addiction or death), and preventing people from taking drugs in the first place.

To think that the cannabis genie is out of the bottle, and that its whiff will float nationwide, vaporizing small-minded opponents, is foolhardy. Nostalgic for a Reagan-era ‘tough on crime’ response, the Trump administration is following a far-right think tank playbook, influenced by the Heritage Foundation. It revives stiff mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, emboldens coordination with local and state law enforcement in its use of civil forfeiture against marijuana violations (even in legal states), and reasserts a new War on Drugs—the same colossal failure that cost billions of dollars pursuing phantoms, imprisoning mostly black, brown and poor people, destroying the lives of families who support and wait for those behind bars.

However, the ‘time-continuum’ may just bend in a new direction. Reeling from the decades of devastation wrought by the War on Drugs, California lawmakers advanced a bill declaring a “marijuana sanctuary state” in June—prohibiting state and local police from enforcing federal anti-marijuana laws that conflict with state government.

After all, the Back to the Future Flux Capacitor may just hit some large speed bumps, perhaps in the form of states who know that sequels often fail.




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