President Trump Pledges to Escalate War on Drugs

In a speech to police chiefs and sheriffs at the Washington DC meeting of the Major Cities Chiefs Association this week, Donald Trump dealt a harsh blow to any activists who may have been hoping for a tolerant stance on drugs from the United States’ new president.

As the conservative blog happily headlines: “Trump Promises to Ramp Up the War on Drugs.” With an almost touching innocence, it writes: “Citing his border wall as a solution along with confidence [in his Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly], Trump apparently believes he will succeed where everyone else has failed.”

The speech was a mixture of such naïveté about winning a drug-free U.S., alarmingly bellicose bombast and the usual just plain wackiness. The day before, Trump met in the Oval Office with some of the assembled sheriffs, and he cited that meeting in his speech, saying he’s asked them: “What impact do drugs have in terms of a percentage on crime? They said, 75 to 80 percent. That’s pretty sad. We’re going to stop the drugs from pouring in. We’re going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We’re going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice.” 

What does this even mean?

How do you measure “impact” in terms of a percentage? What criteria are being applied here? We should know better than to even ask. But, frighteningly, the White House transcript of the speech indicates that this line drew applause.

Trump was quick to emphasize Kelly’s military background in comments plugging his planned border wall—as well as positively invoking Israel’s West Bank security wall that was ruled illegal by the World Court in 2004:

“It’s time to stop the drugs from pouring into our country. And, by the way, we will do that. And I will say this: General, now Secretary, Kelly will be the man to do it, and we will give him a wall. And it will be a real wall. (Applause.) And a lot of things will happen very positively for your cities, your states, believe me. The wall is getting designed right now. A lot of people say, oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall. I wasn’t kidding. I don’t kid. I don’t kid… I don’t kid about things like that, I can tell you. No, we will have a wall. It will be a great wall, and it will do a lot of—will be a big help. Just ask Israel about walls. Do walls work? Just ask Israel. They work—if it’s properly done.”

Kelly is former chief of the Pentagon’s Southern Command, overseeing anti-drug operations throughout Latin America. So it’s telling that Trump used the “general now secretary” construction a second time when he pledged Kelly’s cooperation with sheriffs who want to get tough on immigrants:

“And we’re going to take that fight to the drug cartels and work to liberate our communities from their terrible grip of violence. You have the power and knowledge to tell General Kelly—now Secretary Kelly—who the illegal immigrant gang members are. Now, you have that power because you know them, you’re there, you’re local. You know the illegals, you know them by their first name, you know them by their nicknames. You have that power. The federal government can never be that precise. But you’re in the neighborhoods—you know the bad ones, you know the good ones.”

Yet, predictably, what appears to be the first deportation under the new Trump policy was of one of the good ones. The day before Trump’s speech, Guadalupe García de Rayos showed up for her routine check-in with immigration authorities in Phoenix. It was her eighth such check-in since she was arrested in 2008 for using a fake Social Security number in order to keep her job at a local water park. At each meeting, the married mother of two was allowed to stay in Phoenix and return to her family. But this time, she was detained and promptly deported to Mexico. CNN ran coverage of her tearful 14-year-old daughter speaking at a press conference after the deportation. 

The deportation, the first under Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order on immigration, sparked an angry protest outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs office in Phoenix. Seven were arrested as crowds blocked ICE buses on nearby streets.

So, the first deportation under the new Trump policy was not a hardened narco-trafficker or gang-banger—but a working mom doing her best for her family. To make it more perverse, advocacy group Puente Arizona told CNN that García de Rayos was a victim of the controversial policies of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Enforcing identity-theft laws was one of Arpaio’s foremost tools to crack down on undocumented immigrants in the Phoenix area. Puente sued Arpaio over the practice, charging that the workplace raids—including the one where García de Rayos was arrested nine years ago—were unconstitutional and amounted to racial and ethnic profiling. An injunction against the raids was overturned on appeal, but by then, Arpaio was facing multiple lawsuits, and was forced to disband the task-force that conducted the raids.

Before Kelly was chosen, the notorious Arpaio was named as short-listed by Trump to lead Homeland Security—despite facing contempt-of-court charges in a racial profiling case brought by Obama’s Justice Department.

And a final piece of this grim picture… On the same day of the fracas in Phoenix, the U.S. Senate voted 52-47 to confirm Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general. There was not one dissenting Republican vote, and the confirmation was preceded by the outrageous episode in which GOP senators voted to silence their Democratic colleague Elizabeth Warren for allegedly “impugning” Sessions. Warren’s crime, of course, was reading the text of a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, protesting Sessions’ then-pending appointment to a federal judgeship on the grounds of his hostility to civil rights.

And, of course, Sessions has a history of hostility to a common-sense drug policy too.

“Jeff Sessions and President Trump are stuck in the 1980s when it comes to drug policy, while most of the country knows by now that we need alternatives to the failed drug war,” said Bill Piper, senior director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “If the administration tries to roll back marijuana reform or to undermine criminal justice reform they will find themselves even less popular than they are now.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence that team Trump cares much about their popularity outside their own deeply reactionary base.

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