For months, President Donald Trump promised the American people a new, bold opioid emergency plan to combat the crisis. On Thursday, he finally delivered on his promise to announce his proposal, but “new” or “bold” it wasn’t.
Trump did not allocate one extra penny to fight the epidemic that kills nearly 100 Americans a day. He also suggested that the Reagan-era “Just Say No” approach would be his main weapon in the deadly battle.
“As Americans we cannot allow this to continue,” Trump declared in a speech at the White House. “It is time to liberate our communities from this scourge of drug addiction. We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.”
But it was these passages in his not-so-grand announcement that ruffled the brows of many experts on both sides of the debate:
“This was an idea that I had where if we can teach young people not to take drugs, just not to take them, when I see friends of mine that are having difficulty with not having that drink at dinner, where it’s literally almost impossible for them to stop, I say to myself, ‘I can’t even understand it, why would that be difficult?’ But we understand why it is difficult.”
And this one:
“One of the things our administration will be doing is a massive advertising campaign to get people, especially children, not to want to take drugs in the first place because they will see the devastation and the ruination it causes to people and people’s lives. There is nothing desirable about drugs. They are bad. We want the next generation of young Americans to know the blessings of a drug-free life. If we can teach young people ― and people, generally ― not to start, it’s really, really easy not to take them.”
Trump’s anti-science, old-school approach — “massive advertising dollars” and no additional funding for much anything else — echoes the wishes of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who earlier this year said, “We need to say as Nancy Reagan said, ‘Just Say No.’ Don’t do it!”
On the same day that Trump dominated the headlines and TV news with his all-hat-no-cattle declaration, Sessions gave a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation. This is how Sessions sees the problem:
“We’ve got to reestablish first a view that you should say no. People should say no to drug use. This whole country needs to be not so lackadaisical about drugs. … Much of the addiction starts with marijuana. It’s not a harmless drug.”
Anybody who lived through the 1980s, remembers the “Just Say No” campaign and the equally ineffective D.A.R.E. initiative, in which law enforcement officers attended classrooms and warned children about drug use. A 1988 National Institute of Justice report to Congress concluded that “D.A.R.E. does not work to reduce substance use.” And a 2003 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that the program provided “no significant differences in illicit drug use” among students.
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, was disappointed with the announcement:
“In the face of a devastating overdose crisis, President Donald Trump today made clear his strategy: to stick his head in the sand. … His speech today revealed a profound and reckless disregard for the realities about drugs and drug use in the United States. Trump seemed to be saying that prevention boils down to ads encouraging young people to ‘just say no’ to drugs, ignoring the utter failure of that strategy when the Reagan administration started it in the 1980s. … He held up drug courts as a solution, ignoring all the evidence showing they do more harm than good. And he continued talking about criminal justice answers to a public health problem, even though the war on drugs is itself a major factor contributing to the overdose crisis. Trump had a chance to do something meaningful to help stem the tide of overdose deaths in the country; instead, he is condemning even more people to death, imprisonment, and deportation in the name of his war on drugs.”
Read the press release from presidential memorandum here.
Watch Trump’s speech below: