By Dane Degenstein
Donald Trump has suggested the death penalty for drug dealers.
It has been difficult to pin down President Trump’s policies on anything and the opioid crisis is no different. The fact that he uses language similar to Rodrigo Duterte’s is not surprising given Trump’s admiration of Duterte and unwillingness to condemn a drug war in the Philippines that has claimed thousands of lives.
Trump’s language is worrisome in its extremity but it is not out of line with a number of governments worldwide who support similarly harsh policies, nor is it out of line with the longstanding goal of the United States to spread the war on drugs across the globe. While Trump seems to be taking his lead from other countries on the death penalty idea, the United States has usually influenced how countries choose to deal with the issue of illicit drugs.
Richard Nixon famously coined the term “war on drugs,” which focused on prohibition and aimed at punishing drug dealers and users while increasing funding for border control and policing in the hopes of eradicating drug use altogether. This approach, which has deeply influenced our perspectives on legal and illegal drugs, framed drug use as a crime and not a health issue. Nixon’s approach also promoted a remarkably simplistic understanding of addiction absent of any cultural, socioeconomic, or historical context.
Ronald Reagan took this war further, removing mental health and social supports from the vulnerable while increasing sentences for possession and funding narcotics counter measures abroad. Internationally, this prohibitionist approach was supported by United Nations protocols in 1961, 1971, and 1988, all of which focused on the eradication of drugs through punishment and control. The policies supported by these protocols did not create a drug-free world. Drug prohibition failed in every respect, not only in the basic goals of reducing supply and demand for drugs, but also creating unforeseen crises such as epidemic violence in Mexico and unprecedented incarceration rates in the United States.
In the past decade, there have been steps in a different direction as it becomes clear that new policies are needed. For example, Canada, after a decade of avoidance, has embraced harm reduction, an evidence-based approach that focuses on reducing the harms associated with drug use rather than requiring forced abstinence or punishment of drug users.
Countries such as Tanzania and Kenya, seeing a rise in heroin trafficking and use, have implemented methadone programs to slow the transmission of HIV/AIDS among injection drug users. Even the United States is slowly making evidence-based treatment part of its policy in response to the historic high of 64,000 overdose deaths in 2016. In some ways, the old framework of treating drugs as a criminal issue is finally being replaced by compassionate, evidence-based, harm-reduction approaches.
Unfortunately, as we were reminded this week, the drug war mentality remains strong and the United States remains a leader in promoting this ideology abroad.
Major supply side interventions, focused on alternative crop development, continue to varying levels of success in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. An analysis of eight US agencies operating in the Western hemisphere — including the Drug Enforcement Administration, USAID, and Customs and Border Patrol — shows that they have received close to $40 billion from 2010–2015 to combat illicit drugs, easily dwarfing any aid committed for treatment or harm reduction.
In North Africa and the Middle East, the alignment of USAID priorities with national security interests means a continued focus on transnational crime and illicit drugs connected to criminal networks such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. AFRICOM and CENTCOM — the centralized military command for US Africa Operations and the Middle East respectively — received $496 million for narcotics counter measures alone from 2014–2016. It was unclear how this funding was used as it was completely mismanaged. Even funds put to proper use for training and border control have had little effect as trafficking and drug use continues to rise in West and East Africa and across the Maghreb.
Training and border control are also being promoted in countries with high levels of trafficking. In 2015, Lebanon and Colombia received the highest levels of counter narcotics military training, while the Sub-Saharan region saw the largest increase in US military trainees for this purpose. Heroin traffic through Sub-Saharan Africa has been tied to increased opium production in Afghanistan. This is in spite of US investment of over $8.5 billion in that country since 2002 to limit production.
In countries such as Tanzania and Kenya, eager to appear as allies in the drug war, the governments have vowed to crack down on drug dealing. In the summer of 2017, President John Magufuli of Tanzania imprisoned thousands on drug and anti-corruption charges.
Evidence-based healthcare policy, such as safe injection sites and opioid substitution therapy, are now recognized as lifesaving. Governments willing to invest in them, however, usually also invest in massive counter narcotics measures, including pervasive anti-drug legislation, that produce little result. Illegal drugs and the people who use them continue to serve as easy targets for the complex socioeconomic and systemic issues that underlie addiction. Policies that treat the symptom instead of the disease therefore continue alongside harm reduction interventions.
Despite general awareness of the social disintegration caused by the war on drugs, the rhetoric has proven politically useful. This may explain why a mountain of evidence has had little impact on conservative thinking. When considered in light of the longstanding violence of the war on drugs both in the United States and abroad, Trump’s rhetoric is terrible but not that peculiar in the context of a long and violent project aimed at punishing drug users. Threatening to put drug dealers on death row may be as empty a promise as building a border wall, but the mentality is consistent with the still thriving global war on drugs.
Dane Degenstein is a PhD Candidate at the University of Ottawa. He researches the war on drugs, harm reduction, and drug policy in East Africa. Previous research has included work on democracy and single-party systems in Rwanda and Tanzania and the politics of aid in Sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, he is studying anti-drug policies and harm reduction in Tanzania.