By Mike Ludwig
Donald Trump with his running-mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, during a campaign event at the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States National Convention at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, on July 26, 2016. (Todd Heisler / The New York Times)
Writing about what drug policy might look like under a Trump administration is not easy. Donald Trump’s views on drugs have changed radically over the years, and the Republican nominee’s rambling statements on the subject suggest that they are shaped by gut reactions and political opportunism, not ideology or a deep understanding of social currents and medical science.
Trump’s vice-presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has a clearer track record on drug policy because he has actually held political office, but some of his positions are so archaic that the Trump campaign may wish to keep them off the national stage.
Let’s try a thought experiment to make this a bit easier. Imagine that I’m 16 years old and Trump and Pence are my parents. Let’s not worry about the circumstances by which they became my two dads; this is my imaginary scenario, and I say it doesn’t matter. All three of us are sitting in a suburban living room, with busts of Ronald Reagan and Mel Gibson peering down from the mantle overhead. Pence has just discovered a small bag of marijuana that I’ve been hiding in a drawer full of soccer socks.
Trump starts the conversation with a growl, his face red with anger. He says that buying drugs is the same as handing my generous allowance over to Mexican drug cartels and supporting the spread of crime throughout our major cities. The marijuana in the sock drawer, he says, is proof positive that “we need to build a wall.”
I attempt to defend myself, pointing out that some of Trump’s friends use pot and other drugs. Besides, everyone knows that weed is safer than cigarettes and alcohol, and the good stuff is grown in the United States, not Mexico.
“My friends are wealthy and powerful,” my imaginary Trump responds. “Very wealthy. Very powerful. Are you old enough to own your own business empire? To hire and fire? Nope. Dope is nasty stuff anyway. I’ve never touched it. There will be rule of law in this house, and I am the law, do I make myself clear?”
I nod my head and look at the floor. Trump sighs, checks his watch and announces that a helicopter is waiting for him outside. My worst fears are confirmed as he leaves the room, because now it’s up to Pence to administer my punishment. I look up, and Pence is staring at me in silence. Deep wells of anger and disappointment seem to pool in the darkening circles under his eyes. My freedom is about to vanish.
“You will go to your room immediately and stay there for the next two years,” Pence says after a few minutes that feel like hours. “I will pray for you.”
This may sound like steep punishment for a teenaged stoner, but my imaginary scenario is not a product of paranoia. Pence has presided over a state with some of the harshest marijuana laws in the nation — a dime bag in a sock drawer could land you in an Indiana jail for up to a year if you’ve been caught toking even once before. Pence has consistently blocked decriminalization proposals, even as states and municipalities across the country moved toward decriminalization and legalization.
Pence is a hardcore social conservative that the Trump campaign hopes will motivate the GOP’s dwindling evangelical base, so it’s no surprise that he does not feel the need to go easy on marijuana users. But what about Trump himself? Has his life as a cosmopolitan businessman and entertainer afforded him a more nuanced view of marijuana and other drugs, or will his effort to present himself as the “law and order” candidate push him in a draconian direction?
Trump Flips His Script on the Drug War
Trump’s support for medical marijuana is perhaps his most consistent drug policy position, and he even issued a rambling defense of medical marijuana when pressed by Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly. Trump has said he opposes legalizing recreational marijuana, but, like other major candidates who are hip to the growing support among conservatives for marijuana legalization, Trump has also suggested that states have the right to legalize it on their own.
However, Trump was singing a different tune in 1990, when he declared the war on drugs “a joke” during a speech in Miami and called for the legalization of all drugs in order to “take the profit away from these drug czars.” This was a fairly radical thing to say at a time when US drug enforcement “interventions” in Latin America had essentially become covert military operations. However, Trump had apparently flipped that script by the time he decided to run for president as a Republican. In the course of his campaign, he has even consulted a former US drug czar who recently penned an op-ed titled “Bring Back the War on Drugs.”
At a time when a number of lawmakers — both Democrat and Republican — are considering modest measures to curb mass incarceration, and many politicians from across the political spectrum are backing public health-based policies to address the nation’s highly publicized problems with heroin and painkillers, Trump seems to be reaching into the past in his quest to assure the public that “safety will be restored” if he becomes president.
“The scariest thing about Trump on drug policy is that while other Republican presidential candidates were talking about compassion, treatment and taking a health approach, Trump’s main solution to the heroin problem was building a wall with Mexico,” said Daniel Raymond, a spokesman with the Harm Reduction Coalition, in an email to Truthout. “He’s generally taken a ‘tough on crime’ stance that directly conflicts with harm reduction and public health approaches to drug use.”
Indeed, the only mention of drugs in Trump’s policy platform can be found in his proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border and “compel” Mexico to fork over $5 to $10 billion to pay for it, because Mexican “gangs, drug traffickers and cartels have freely exploited our open borders” and “committed vast numbers of crimes.”
It’s no secret that Trump has stoked fear of our southern neighbors on the campaign trail, a tactic that has alienated Latino voters, to say the least. But what about reducing demand for illicit drugs at home, which the Mexican government has long argued is our government’s responsibility?
“Trump [has] recently gestured towards the need for more drug treatment, but provided no specifics,” Raymond said. “And his health care plan would leave 18 million people — including some people in need of drug treatment — uninsured.”
Mike Pence Cracks Down
The GOP’s candidate for vice president also seems to be stuck in a time warp. In March, Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation in Indiana reinstating mandatory minimum sentencing for some drug crimes, even as mainstream politicians in his own party are doing the opposite.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require minimum prison sentences for certain crimes and prevent judges from lowering or suspending those sentences, regardless of the circumstances. Mandatory minimum laws are, theoretically, aimed at deterring drug trafficking and ensuring that people are serving similar sentences for similar crimes. The laws became a central feature of the domestic war on drugs during the anti-drug hysteria of the 1980s and ’90s. Nowadays, almost all policy-makers agree that they haven’t worked.
Instead of reducing supplies of illegal drugs, mandatory minimums fueled mass incarceration, contributing to the explosive growth of prison populations over the past two decades and disproportionately impacting people of color. Now, drug offenders make up 60 percent of those locked up in federal prison, up from 38 percent when the first mandatory minimums were established in 1986, and the US has the highest incarceration rate of any country on the planet.
Lawmakers in both liberal and conservative states have been rolling back mandatory minimums, and a bill that would reduce federal mandatory minimums has bipartisan support in Congress (though whether it will pass anytime soon is an open question). Pence signed off on a sentencing reform designed to reduce Indiana’s prison population back in 2013-14, but the bill he signed last March cancels out some of that progress.
Pence had yet to be tapped by the Trump campaign and was facing a tough bid for reelection at the time, and he said in a statement that he was pleased to “increase penalties for drug dealers.”
“To start, I believe that any strategy to address drug abuse must start with enforcement,” Pence said. “We need to make it clear that Indiana will not tolerate the actions of criminals.”
The law reinstates lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for defendants who are charged with selling heroin or methamphetamine and have prior trafficking convictions. Both drugs have left a stain on Indiana’s reputation under Pence’s watch. In 2014, the Drug Enforcement Agency ranked Indiana as number one in the country for meth lab busts, and in 2013, an outbreak of HIV infections among injecting drug users with opioid dependencies in a rural Indiana community was declared a public health emergency.
Pence also attracted national scrutiny when he approved controversial abortion restrictions and a so-called “religious freedom” law that critics say allows business owners to discriminate against people they perceive as LGBT, but it was the HIV outbreak in a mostly white, God-fearing community in the rural heartland that captured global media attention.
Pence was a longtime opponent of syringe exchange programs, even though public health and human rights groups across the world consider them to be essential for preventing the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. Under Pence’s watch, conservative lawmakers slashed budgets for public health agencies as the federal government cracked down on prescription painkillers, forcing people with opiate addictions to turn to injection drug use and street drugs like heroin.
When injection drug users do not have access to clean syringes, they tend to reuse and share them, and diseases like HIV can spread quickly. As the world watched Indiana, Pence approved an emergency syringe exchange program in the epicenter of the outbreak and eventually made it easier for programs to start up in other hard-hit areas, but he wasn’t about to let a public health crisis sour his reputation as a stoic social conservative.
“It took an unprecedented HIV outbreak to get Pence to reverse his opposition to syringe exchange,” Raymond said. “However, that [has] still left new programs in Indiana fending for themselves, as they don’t have any access to state funding. That’s not leadership — he’s done the bare minimum in preventing future outbreaks.”
As a member of Congress, Pence and other Republicans supported a longstanding ban on allowing federal funding to support syringe exchange programs, even reversing a Democratic effort to lift the ban in 2011. After the outbreak in red-state Indiana and HIV scares in neighboring Kentucky, however, the GOP dropped its opposition to providing federal funding for syringe exchanges late last year.
Pence hasn’t completely missed the drug policy boat. Along with the mandatory minimum law, Pence also approved legislation that makes it easer for Medicaid patients to access treatment for drug and alcohol problems. He also made naloxone, the life-saving opioid antidote that can reverse an overdose, easier to get without a prescription. An alarming nationwide spike in overdoses, accompanied by media hype over the so-called “opioid epidemic,” has galvanized support for such policies among Democrats and Republicans alike.
Raymond pointed out that, although Pence has hardly been a harm-reduction leader, he did sign a law to expand overdose-prevention efforts and joined the governors of most states in signing a “Compact to Fight Opioid Addiction.”
A Step Backwards
The Harm Reduction Coalition is nonpartisan and does not endorse presidential candidates, but Raymond said Trump a presidency would “mark a huge step backwards in drug policy.”
Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, has signaled her support for an end to the war on drugs, but she is expected to simply pick up where the Obama administration left off.
Obama is currently pressuring Republicans in Congress to approve $1 billion to combat opioid misuse, largely through public health efforts, and Clinton wants to spend $10 billion over the next decade. She touts her support for reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and has said she would prioritize treatment over prison time for low-level offenders. However, her platform says nothing about decriminalizing or legalizing drugs at the federal level, including marijuana.
With the elections drawing near, the Trump campaign is running out of time to put forth solid drug policy proposals. Meanwhile, Pence and Trump seem eager to return to a time when health problems like drug misuse and disease were blamed on heinous criminals and moral decay — or simply the nation of Mexico. Policies shaped around these ideas have been failing for decades, but be careful if you decide to protest or subvert them. You could end up locked up in your room, or someplace even worse.