Throughout his insurgent campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump spoke about the nation’s growing opioid epidemic, vowing to “stop the flow of illegal drugs into the country.” While these statements aligned with President Trump’s unsurprisingly tough stance on immigration, they also spoke to the real concerns of many rural, white voters who broke for Trump in states like Maine and West Virginia. On Wednesday, Trump appeared to make good on his promises to those voters, announcing that he will create a commission to address opioid addiction, an initiative to be led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The commission’s primary task, Trump said, will be to prepare a report on the state of the issue, and to offer recommendations for how the government can respond.
This disappointed drug policy experts who see the commission as a retread of Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy’s landmark report on addiction. The report, the first of its kind from the surgeon general’s office, attracted widespread media attention for proposing major changes to government drug policy when it was released last November. Previously, government policies often exacerbated the issue by ignoring modern scientific understandings of drug abuse. Ignoring that report and starting from scratch is a disheartening approach to an urgent issue — thousands of people die each year from opioid overdoses, and the number is rising.*
But this lack of urgency isn’t what’s most damning, at least not on its own. What’s particularly concerning is how this shines a light on the Trump administration’s uninformed drug policy in general, and rattles the bones of the federal government’s controversial “War on Drugs.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for instance, is a fierce critic of marijuana legalization, stating that if the government does not send a message that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” rates of heroin and cocaine use could rise as well. Last month, a study found that states that legalized medical marijuana may have reduced the number of opioid-related hospitalizations. But this month, Sessions renewed his commitment to fighting drug abuse through tough criminal justice policy in statements to law enforcement.
Amid this rhetoric, the decision to appoint Christie, an outspoken advocate for a public-health approach to opioid addiction, is a welcome sign for drug policy experts. In New Jersey, Christie tackled opioid addiction with compassion, signing a Good Samaritan law to protect drug users when they report an overdose and expanding access to addiction treatment. But Sessions’ presence on the commission and proposals like the now-defunct American Health Care Act, which would have cut $100 million in block grants for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, make the administration’s stance on the issue unclear.
To understand why, look no further than Trump’s incendiary 2015 campaign announcement speech, in which he warned that Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.” Trump’s tough-on-drugs rhetoric is recognizable — part of the inglorious history of the “War on Drugs,” launched by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s. But his decision to temper that rhetoric with compassionate understanding for the largely white communities affected by the opioid epidemic betrays the toxic racial undertones of the government’s long-standing anti-drug policies. One Nixon aide brazenly pointed to these racist motivations in an interview with Harper’s, published last April:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
You can trace a similarly insidious pattern today. In October, for instance, Trump touted addiction services and better treatment for the people at his New Hampshire rally, while simultaneously decrying President Barack Obama’s decision to commute the sentences of low-level drug offenders, often black and brown citizens.
This double standard is more evident now that opioids are ravaging white communities. But it has always been present. In the 1980s, as crack-cocaine flooded inner cities, the news media responded with hysteria over “crack babies,” while the Reagan administration pushed to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1989, adopting strict “mandatory minimums” with wildly disparate penalties for crack and powder cocaine. Of course, crack is more commonly used in poor, black communities than it’s more expensive, powder counterpart. Eight years later, when Congressional Black Caucus members pushed President Bill Clinton to provide drug treatment and economic assistance in his landmark crime bill, he ignored their voices and sought the votes of conservative Republicans pushing against “welfare for criminals.”
Now, as people like Christie speak with compassion and understanding for opioid addicts, the question remains: Where was this compassion for black people?
The answer, again, is troubling, and it likely lies with Nixon and the War on Drugs. The government has spent over 40 years promoting anti-drug propaganda and criminalizing those who use and sell drugs, but the reasons why have never held up. If marijuana is too dangerous for recreational consumption, why are more deadly drugs, like alcohol and tobacco, not? If the government truly wants to eradicate cocaine use, why are white Wall Street executives and college fraternity brothers not behind bars?
While it’s no small thing that the Trump administration is taking an explicit stand on the opioid crisis — indeed, this is one of the few drug crises where people aren’t being blamed for their addiction — it’s also important for us to take stock of history. The administration’s opioid plan allows us to hold the past up to the light of the present. And what we see, in this particular case, is a sobering reminder of which lives have been marked as worthier than others — and how that decision has all too often followed a persistent color line.
This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.
*Update—April 11, 2017: This post has been updated to reflect the proper month when Surgeon General Murthy released his 2016 report.