My View: The War on Drugs Did Not Turn Out Well, So Let’s Be Careful on Approach to Opioid Abuse


Supervisor Matt Rexroad offers some thoughtful commentary on opioid abuse in an op-ed in the Woodland paper on Thursday.  From my perspective, opioid abuse, which has manifested itself in prescription drug and pain killer abuse, is a serious health issue, but I worry about the rhetoric of saying “yes to the war on opioid abuse” because it seems to repeat failed policies of the past.

(As a programming note, the subject of opioid abuse will be a focus of our weekly video coming on Thursday at 6 pm).

Supervisor Rexroad relates the issue to an injury he suffered in 1994 while in the military.  He writes, “I cannot say that I approve of people taking illegal drugs for pain relief, but that experience made me understand it.”

His main point: “The latest frontline in the failed war on drugs focuses on opioids. These legal prescription pain-killers and their illegal variations are devastating communities throughout the country.”

He argues, “Just saying ‘no’ does not deal with the real policy issue. Ignoring it does an even greater disservice.”

Nearly 2000 Californians died of opioid overdoses in 2015.  And the problem is growing, as “nearly 4,000 visits were made to emergency rooms, along with more than 4,000 hospitalizations for opioid overdoses. It’s a wonder there weren’t more, considering 24.4 million opioid prescriptions were written in California in 2015. That’s 24.4 million prescriptions in a state of 39 million people.

“While Yolo County is not nearly as bad as some, it still suffers a higher rate of opioid overdose deaths (6.47 per 100,000 residents) than the statewide average (4.73/100,000),” he adds. “The overdose death rate in the Esparto area is more than five times the state average. It’s more than three times higher than the state average in the 95695 zip code that includes part of Woodland.”

So what is the solution?

He starts with, “Stopping illegal opioids like heroin from entering the country over the Mexican border is also essential.”

He continues, “The immigration debate is raging right now based on changes or proposed changes in federal policy. We can debate about who is let into this country, but we really should not have to debate whether these drugs are allowed to enter the country. The fact is that this problem happens in our backyard, and in many other backyards across the country.”

Supervisor Rexroad concludes: “As we’ve learned over the past three decades, there is no easy answer for the nation’s drug problem. It might even get worse when recreational marijuana begins to be sold in California in January. But we can and we must do more than just say ‘no.’ It is a law enforcement problem, but it is also an amazingly complex public health problem that needs attention nationally.”

There are three planks to his point.  First, the interdiction effort to stop drugs from coming over the border.  Second, the law enforcement aspect.  And third, a health problem.

While I am gratified that he would acknowledge this as not only a public health problem, but as one that is “amazingly complex,” I am concerned about the other two planks of his query (he really doesn’t offer a solution as such – which is actually to his credit).

The problem I have is that interdiction and law enforcement efforts on the war of drugs have generally failed.

From my perspective, the war on drugs has helped to breed an era of mass incarceration.  In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that more blacks are under the control of the criminal justice system today than were enslaved.  Ms. Alexander attributes this to the war on drugs.

“Today,” writes Ms. Alexander, “a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.”

As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting notes, “For decades coverage of drug policy helped fuel the racist, wrong-headed drug war which led to policies such as draconian mandatory minimum sentences and laws refusing financial aid to anyone convicted of drug-related crimes, which were particularly hard on the African-American community, due to racial disparities in arrests and sentencing.”

Thus, when we start talking about law enforcement efforts to deal with the opioid crisis, I think about failed sentencing schemes, the disproportionate sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, and mass incarceration.

It is interesting to note that the attitudes among Americans toward a drug epidemic has evolved, although some have attributed this change to race as well.

In a 2016 op-ed in the New York Times, Ekow Yankah notes that when the crack epidemic hit in the mid-1980s, “Crack embodied instant and fatal addiction; we saw endless images of thin, ravaged bodies, always black, as though from a famined land. And always those desperate, cracked lips. Our hearts broke learning the words ‘crack baby.’”

But he says that “mostly, crack meant shocking violence, terrifying gangs and hollowed-out inner cities.”

Thirty years later, “America is again seeing an epidemic of drug addiction, particularly heroin. The surge is so great that for the first time in generations, mortality among young white adults has risen. But the national attitude toward drug addiction is utterly different.”

Most importantly, he writes, “police chiefs in the cities most affected by heroin are responding not by invoking military metaphors, weapons and tactics but by ensuring that police officers save lives and get people into rehab.”

As one former narcotics officer described his change of heart on addiction, “These are people and they have a purpose in life and we can’t as law enforcement look at them any other way.”

This is a good change and even Professor Yankah noted, “It is heartening to see the eclipse of the generations-long failed war on drugs.”

The question is how and the answer should be obvious – the money that we’ve put into the failed war on drugs, into mass incarceration, into enforcement, needs to go into the health care system for education and treatment.

I worry about a return to the metaphor of war in the context to the opioid epidemic, even as we acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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4 thoughts on “My View: The War on Drugs Did Not Turn Out Well, So Let’s Be Careful on Approach to Opioid Abuse”

  1. Tia Will

    I also am heartened by Supervisor Rexroad’s accurate portrayal of drug abuse as a complex public health issue. I would like to add one additional point that I do not think is often covered adequately. When people think of drugs, they tend to think of drugs being smuggled across the southern border. It is true that some are. But many are not. Many of the lethal opioids are obtained legally, or borderline legally through either legitimate or questionable prescriptions. Others are flown into the country in response to the traditional forms of demand to be sold on the street. However, I see no mention of a means of increasing popularity which is orders obtained on the internet. We are looking at the need to address addiction not only as illegal activity, but also a major medical problem, both individual and public health that will require a completely new, multifactorial approach with efforts made on new fronts that have not been addressed previously. Certainly a return to a “war on drugs” in the traditional sense will prove ineffective. It has not worked in the past. There is no evidence that it would work now in a much more complex situation.

    1. David Greenwald

      I still think we have to figure out how to get resources to deal with this is a medical issue. And all the money spent on law enforcement should be going toward treatment.

  2. Richard Jefferson

    I have a two questions for David Greenwald: Have you ever heard of Al Capone and Elliot Ness? Do you know what happened when drug fighters and illegalizers were allowed to wage a war against millions of alcohol consumers, producers, and dealers? Since you appear to be clueless, I will help you. When millions of honest, decent Americans were treated as criminals, the result of all that government violence and crime was more violence, crime, gangs, gang warfare, addiction, and deaths from adulterated booze.

    By the way, all accidental overdoses are caused by the adulterated, improperly labeled, and improperly manufactured drugs produced by the current illegalization war. For example, pure opiates such as morphine and its analog diacetylmorphine (heroin) packaged in safe doses are 100% safe. It is impossible to accidentally overdose on properly labeled drugs that are packaged in safe doses just like it is impossible to accidentally jump off a tall building or accidentally swallow twenty pills instead of one or two.

    Opiates such as morphine and heroin are among the safest drugs known to mankind. They have been safely produced and consumed throughout history. Billions of human beings have benefited from the use of opiates without any adverse side effects such as “addiction”, whatever that means. When medicinal plants and extracts such as opiates were legal, cheap, and available with no restrictions, nobody died from possessing, producing, selling, or consuming them. There was no opiate or drug “epidemic” when drug fighters and illegalizers were not allowed to assault, rob, and arrest millions of innocent Americans who had never harmed anyone or violated anyone’s rights.

    Every illegalizer, prohibitionist, and everyone else who supports the current “war on drugs” is personally responsible for every accidental overdose. Why? Because they employ armies of armed government agents in order to prevent their fellow humans from purchasing safe drugs that are packaged in safe doses. The same is true of all those who supported alcohol Prohibition (the previous drug war that was conducted against alcohol producers, dealers, and consumers). Everyone of those enemies of freedom was personally responsible for all the victims of that war such as all those who were killed or injured from consuming bad booze and all the other victims of that unjust war such as the victims of the gang warfare that resulted from that illegalization war. The real crimunals during that war against the American people and their freedoms were not the beer drinkers, producers, and distributors. The real criminals were the lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, police, and everyone else who thought that it was okay to assault, rob, and arrest beer drinkers, and murder anyone who objected. Illegalization wars produce violence, death, destruction, misery, and massive violations of human rights.

    After forty years of continuously expanding their war, drug fighters and illegalizers have increased the prison population by an astounding 800%. By arresting millions of Americans who are 100% innocent of committing any real crime. The drug warriors have succeeded in transforming the former land-of-the-free into the world’s leading police-prison state with the world’s highest rate of incarceration.

    The original reason for the drug war was racism. White supremacists and anti-immigration proponents accused Chinese laborers of stealing jobs from Americans and using opium to seduce young, white women. They accused negroes who consumed cocaine of having the audacity to look a white man in the eye and using their jazz music to corrupt white youth. And, they accused Mexicans of stealing jobs from Americans and using cannabis to seduce young, white women. The drug war made it legal to persecute those non-whites.

    The drug war is still about money and power. Medicinal plants and extracts are currently illegal because they cannot be patented. They are illegal because big corporations cannot make big profits from goods that can be legally produced and sold for pennies by poor people such as peasant farmers. They are illegal because the biological action of every prescription drug can be duplicated with medicinal plants, extracts, and dietary supplements that are much safer, more effective, and much cheaper. In a free market where everyone, including poor people, are allowed to compete, basic medicines (drugs) would be dirt cheap. Big Pharma (the government licensed drug cartel) would lose more than ninety percent of their sales amounting to several hundred billion dollars per year. That is the reason why government drug fighters are employed to arrest millions of consumers who prefer natural drugs over the dangerous and often deadly synthetics produce by Big Pharma. Money is the reason why heavily-armed government agents are employed to murder peasant farmers and spray poison on their land, livestock, crops, and families. In fact, the medical industrial complex purchases tons of raw opium every year from selected peasant farmers and resell the refined opiates by prescription for ten thousand times more than they paid. The prescription drug racket is the most profitable racket in history enforced by armies of armed government agents who can legally kill anyone who honestly competes with Big Pharma.

    The drug war is now a one trillion dollar per year armed robbery that enriches Big Pharma and the police-prison industrial complex at the expense of taxpayers and consumers. It is the largest armed robbery in history.      — Rick  [Freedom_First (at) verizon (dot) net]


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