President Trump, scrap the wall and a drug war and treat the drug crisis

We need smart criminal justice policies that focus on rehabilitation and treatment, rather than punishment, to address the opioid crisis.

But, Trump wants to address drug addiction by building walls and closing borders. His approach would be a sore disappointment to the millions of Americans who have witnessed drug addiction devastate their communities and families, especially those who voted for him in the Rust Belt.

Many Americans have watched people suffer from addiction and know first-hand that it is an illness that requires rehabilitation and compassion. It is a long-term and chronic ailment, and building walls and throwing people into prison for it does little to cure the underlying medical condition.

From Ohio to West Virginia, the Rust Belt has been one the hardest hit areas by the opioid crisis. These communities are plagued by low educational attainment, isolation, and devastated economies. They have a long history of disengagement, and they will not be healed by building walls at the border.


Trump’s proposal is an extension of the failed war on drugs. Focusing on the border is just another way of locking people up and building more prisons to address a crisis that requires a more sensible approach. 

The war on drugs was about punishment and throwing people in jail with the goal of decreasing the amount of drugs and addiction that plagued our communities.

This approach did not work. Many Americans are already aware that drug addiction is a disease that warrants a public health response. Many of us have witnessed our friends or family members suffer from addiction

Americans aren’t scared by invisible drug boogeymen that loom by the borders, nor do we want expensive wars on drugs that are failures. We want policy solutions that are actually going to work.

Studies have shown that harm reduction models may be more effective at treating addiction and creating healthier communities. The Surgeon General recently published a report on drug addiction that says what those of us with friends and family members who have suffered from addiction already know; drug addiction is a chronic illness that warrants a public health response.

Instead of coming up with new ways to throw people in prison and fabricating new drug villains in a story that is really be about disease, we should fix our broken system by adopting policies that treat the harms of this illness.

Americans already recognize that the criminal justice is dysfunctional, and most Americans support programs that focus on rehabilitation. Conservatives states, such as Oklahoma and Nebraska, and Texas have adopted policies that aim to reduce incarceration and promote a smarter criminal justice system. 

Despite this public sentiment, we have to worry about a Department of Justice that might be headed by Senator Jeff Session, who may very well focus on harsh punishments and severe sentences instead of ensuring that people get the individualized treatment to eliminate the demand for drugs that addiction fuels.

The importance of devoting resources to rehabilitation rather than incarceration will be critical to ensure that avoidable consequences of widespread drug addiction are neutralized.

Below are five policy solutions that will go a long way toward addressing the opioid crisis:

1) Adopt a Public Health Harm Reduction Model

Local and state governments should adopt a harm reduction model for criminal justice policy, particularly in relation to drug-related conduct, that focuses on treating underlying issues over criminalization. The City of Ithaca has adopted a comprehensive program that adopts a harm reduction approach that may serve as a blueprint for other jurisdictions interested in adopting policies that actually address addiction.

2) De-Prioritize Drug-Related Offenses & Respect Federalism

Several states have adopted laws that decriminalize all or certain aspects of marijuana possession and sale. The Department of Justice should respect the will of the people from these states that have voted to decriminalize marijuana and refrain from interfering in state matters by prosecuting people for marijuana charges.

3) Fund Syringe Exchange Programs

State and local legislatures should provide funding to syringe exchange programs, to reduce the transmission of HIV as part of a comprehensive approach to HIV prevention, and to reduce the harms from drug addiction.

4) Invest in Community Treatment and Expand Youth Programming

State and local legislatures should expand programming, job training and apprenticeships for young people to prevent the disengagement and economic lockout that leads to drug use and involvement in the drug trade.

5) Eliminate Harsh Sentences and Divert before Booking 

Where appropriate and as reduces arrests, local governments and police departments should support diversion programs that treat people, rather than incarcerate them, for suffering from addiction. The focus should be on pre-booking and non-arrest diversion for conduct that would otherwise result in a criminal record; and legislatures should reform harsh sentencing laws, including three strikes laws, mandatory minimums, and truth-in- sentencing laws that encourage harsh sentences for less serious drug offenses.

Fortunately, these policies can go a long way toward fostering a criminal justice system that reduces the opioid crisis. We just need to make sure that our leaders adopt these commonsense solutions instead of wasting time and money on what we already know doesn’t work.


India Thusi is the associate counsel for The Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communication lab. She has litigated cases on policing and structural inequality in the criminal justice system.

Follow her on Twitter @inGerri. Follow the Opportunity Agenda on Twitter @oppagenda

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.