STRAIGHT DOPE

How the War on Drugs Failed Prince

We are in the midst of a national addiction to lethal legal drugs, and the White House is attacking marijuana.

Matt Kent

A year later, it still hurts to think of Prince, alone in an elevator, dying.

He did so much for so many and meant so much to so many, but at the end, he needed help—yet he was alone. Those closest to him knew he was so out of control that he needed professional help. The day before his death an aide called a famous drug counselor and told him to come now—a day later would be too long. They were right. Prince died before the drug counselor arrived.

We’ve seen rockstar drug abuse. It seems like a natural extension of rockstar excess. But Prince’s situation had nothing to do with that. He died after overdosing on fentanyl, a powerful prescription opioid. It’s a drug meant to block pain.

Prince was using a powerful, legal, prescription drug to address chronic hip pain, something your grandmother might be doing right now. Prince filled his life with activities unique to the superrich and megafamous, but his death was tragically common—he was just one of the thousands who die each year because of prescription pain killers.

We have a massive national problem—according to the American Society of Addictive Medicine, between 1999 and 2008, prescription opioid overdoses were responsible for more American deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. In 2015 the leading cause of accidental death in America was a drug overdose and almost half of those deaths—about 20,000 deaths—were caused by pain relievers you can get with a prescription.

We are in the midst of a national addiction to lethal legal drugs. And what is the White House doing? They’re attacking marijuana. Which cannot kill anyone.

The Obama administration had begun cranking down the “War on Drugs” by allowing states to decriminalize marijuana, commuting federal drug sentences, and visiting a prison to humanize drug inmates. But of course, President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are cranking the “War on Drugs” back up.

This White House wants the police to be more aggressive and use stop-and-frisk, they want prosecutors to stringently enforce marijuana laws, they want judges to expand the use of mandatory minimum sentences, and they want to build more private prisons.

The Obama administration’s drug czar, Michael Botticelli, once said, “We can’t incarcerate addiction out of people.” But one of Sessions’s top lieutenants, Steven Cook, has said, “The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed.”

Sessions himself says “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad. It will derail your life.”

Sessions’s antiquated notion of drugs as purely bad and the sure path to life derailment is post-truth fearmongering straight out of Reefer Madness. It doesn’t take into account the core of the modern problem—opioids.

How is it morally wrong for us to take legal, prescription opioids for pain? Sessions also doesn’t take into account that millions of productive Americans use illegal drugs recreationally and carefully, enjoying a joint at the end of day instead of a glass of wine.

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The majority of illegal drug users are not drug abusers and the substances are not derailing their lives—they’re enriching them. Sessions also doesn’t take into account that the “War on Drugs” has failed—America incarcerates more people than any nation on the planet by far while illegal drugs remain widely available, inexpensive and potent.

The “War on Drugs” has succeeded only in making the Mexican cartels richer than they would have been.

But maybe the “War on Drugs” has worked as it’s supposed to. Perhaps the “War on Drugs” is an opiate itself, meant make white people feel like they’re getting negroes under control. It declares a frightening enemy—the drug-addled darkie who’s liable to do anything—and a savior/hero who’s here to help—the tough white president who’s sending in the troops.

The “War on Drugs” has given presidents, judges, and police the chance to look tough and rack up high numbers while doing nothing to actually address the drug problem.

Late in Obama’s term, he earmarked more than $1 billion to combat prescription opioid abuse, but it seems like Trump and Sessions are unaware that the problem exists at all.

While they’re attacking marijuana, they’re doing nothing to address the opiate problem. This is part of the inherent madness of Trumpian thinking: instead of grappling with real problems, deal with misinformed perception.

The opioid epidemic is a huge problem in many of the counties that went for Trump. This is a life-threatening issue for many of his voters and their families. But instead of addressing the prescription drug problem, he’s focused conveying the perception that he’s a tough Boss Hogg type who’s getting unruly weed-smoking negroes in line.

The perception may make his voters feel strong, it may make Trump look tough, it may contribute to making white people feel alpha, but it doesn’t actually help anyone.

But that’s the way Trump does things. The dearth of jobs is about the rise of robotization. Talking about the fiction that he can bring back coal or attacking NAFTA may make some people feel better but it doesn’t address the real reasons why millions are slowly being put out of work by self-driving cars, box-carting robots, and delivery drones.

Talking about a wall and a deportation force makes Trump seem like he’s tough, but immigration is at a net negative and real solutions will require business owners like Trump to on shore operations no matter what it does to the bottom line.

Trump is all about dealing with false perceptions while ignoring real problems. He’s good at making his supporters feel better without actually delivering anything. If Trump himself were a drug he’d be a pill that does nothing to deal with the actual problem but is effective in blocking pain. (That pill would only work in white people who watch Fox News, but that’s another story.)

If you took that Trump pill, you’d feel better for a little while. You’d see America returning to the 1950s right in front of your eyes, but in reality, nothing is happening. Sounds like he wouldn’t be an opioid at all—he’d be an hallucinogen.