Once he was safely a lame duck, President Barack Obama let states set their own marijuana policies, pardoned or commuted thousands of prisoners’ sentences and talked more freely—and less hypocritically—about the need to end the war on drugs. In fact, his Office of Drug Control Policy (ODCP) concluded that Richard Nixon’s famous War on Drugs was now a relict by sending the wrong message in prioritizing punishment over treatment. (In reality, the war did continue, even if the phrase had been covered neatly with a tarp for a few years under the guise of “laboratories of democracy.“)
Now we’re in Donald Trump’s America, with Trump’s ODCP and Trump’s Department of Justice. Attorney General Jeff Sessions heads the latter and he’s expressed befuddlement that the American people aren’t cheering his musings on the prospect of kicking the drug war up a notch to prevent some imagined dystopian future of convenience-store marijuana sales. Unfortunately, POTUS’s supposed pick for drug czar, U.S. Representative Tom Marino, is likely to be just as bad as Sessions. A Republican from Pennsylvania, Marino’s voting record on the drug war makes him well-suited for this position in a Trump administration.
As the Washington Post reports, Marino seems to gung-ho on the “Let’s vaguely pretend this is about public health” front, a position that is all the rage on the right. For Marino, protecting public health may involve “hospital-slash-prisons.”
During a 2016 congressional hearing about heroin, Marino wrung his hands on drug abuse and mostly, how it affects children. His full quote, in context: “One treatment option I have advocated for years would be placing nondealer, nonviolent drug abusers in a secured hospital-type setting under the constant care of health professionals. Once the person agrees to plead guilty to possession, he or she will be placed in an intensive treatment program until experts determine that they should be released under intense supervision. If this is accomplished, then the charges are dropped against that person. The charges are only filed to have an incentive for that person to enter the hospital-slash-prison, if you want to call it.”
Incentive is one word for ‘hospital-slash-prisons’; blackmail and force are some others.
Sure, incentive is one word for this; blackmail and force are some others. In his testimony, Marino appears to be focused on parents. The hearing itself was focused on heroin. However, Marino did not clarify standards. Childless heroin addicts may be able to get out of his plan—or just be sent to regular prison. It’s also unclear whether Marino is picturing parents who smoke weed on the weekends when he pictures his “hospital-slash-prison” plan, but he didn’t offer much detail, just a menacing vision of help-whether-you-like-it-or-not.
If you wanted to squeeze something positive out of Marino being appointed head of the ODCP, you can look back at his apparent disinterest in sending the feds into the 28 states where marijuana is legal recreationally or medically—perhaps only because the move would be unpopular. More than 50 percent of people have supported weed legalization since 2011. You could also note that Marino’s desire to imprison drug users indefinitely seems wrong and unlikely to get anywhere in part because American society has moved away from the desire to punish every single person caught with a gram of an illicit substance.
At a sloth’s pace, Americans have stopped panicking over marijuana. At least 100 million Americans have tried it at least once, and none of the racially tinged, overwrought propaganda of DARE has come true. However, panic over the increase in opioid overdoses continues to reverberate through society. Abuse of pain pills, and a correlated rise in heroin use and overuse is a real problem—one severely aggravated by mixing the drugs with anti-depressants, alcohol or other drugs. (That’s why overdoses are generally referred to as opioid-related, for accuracy’s sake.) Opioid use and overdoses have increased, as has the corresponding heroin increases, but for decades, heroin use was statistically flat, no matter how much law and order was involved.
Trump started a commission devoted entirely to the issue and put New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in charge of it. Christie is a drug warrior, but he has also moved in some positive public health directions. The most useful of these was probably his unabashed support in 2014 for cops and EMTs to carry the opioid-overdose reversing drug Naloxone, and for it to be sold over the counter at drug stores.
But if we want real harm reduction coming from Christie—the life-saving kind—we’ll also inherit Christie the Drug Warrior, who vowed to crack down on marijuana if elected president and who has pitched the government being even more involved in the number of drugs doctors are allowed to prescribe. Chronic pain is a serious problem that isn’t worthy of a moral panic, so it gets ignored. Opioid tolerance increases in people with constant pain issues, requiring them to ingest more drugs to get the same relief. Obviously there are real risks associated with these substances, but a life with permanent pain too has its own risks. Furthermore, getting the government involved in medical matters sure as hell hasn’t worked in the 45-year (or 100-year, if you prefer) drug war. Why would it now? Marino’s plan is a symptom of the same disease Christie suffers from: the idea that the federal government, or even a state government, can decide effective health policy and make doctors and patients easily fall into line.
Before we get to the truly enlightened idea that any nonviolent user or dealer should only get treatment if they want it, society side-steps toward these ghastly law enforcement-cum-medical solutions. Forcing drug users (each one a presumed addict) to stay in a hospital-jail until some panel deems them clean and sober citizens is a draconian solution to a problem with many different causes and many different answers (and in some cases isn’t a problem at all). And how many decades of wasted money, resources, and lives do we need before we rule this solution to be ineffective when it comes to drugs?
Many prisons and jails are already doing double duty as mental health facilities and rehab centers. According to Estelle v. Gamble (1976), prisoners must be given “adequate” medical care. However, that’s a broad and easily yanked away right, depending on the facility and the cruelty of those involved in running it. Marino’s idea of a place where the word hospital is said before the word prison could be spun as a kindly compromise with the right savvy PR campaign.
If Marino is the choice for the ODCP, he’s likely to be a good drug warrior (who would take that job if they weren’t?). But his creativity here is unsettling. The top-down force, and the implications for law and order and the medical profession’s need to make choices without federal mandates, are dire.
The Marino plan is likely to appeal to moderates who picture it as a humanitarian step. It’s not. It’s both taking power away from doctors—who should be the only ones helping addicts if they and only if they request it—and making them too powerful, as they would presumably be the majority of the expert panel playing God and deciding if nonviolent drug offenders can be safely released back into society and reunited with their children.
Lucy Steigerwald is an editor at Young Voices and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. She has written for Playboy.com, The American Conservative, VICE, The Daily Beast, The Washington Post’s website, and other outlets. Her Twitter is @lucystag.