Trump’s Drug Czar Flip-Flop: Funding for Border Wall Before Opiate Treatment

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Proving America’s would-be strongman can be as pliant as a microwaved bagel when subjected to the slightest bit of pressure, the Trump administration completed a near-perfect 360-degree turn on drug policy on Tuesday.  

But even Donald Trump’s flip-flops are ghastly disasters.

While abandoning an almost universally-derided plan that would have exacerbated the opiate overdose crisis, the White House instead found a way to make America even worse.  

Let’s review.

Earlier this month, shortly after Donald Trump’s rumored favorite for the position of White House “drug czar” dropped out of contention, it appeared the president was ready to eliminate the job entirely. As per a draft budget document leaked to CBS News, the Trump White House wanted to cut the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s (ONDCP) funding by almost 95 percent.

The move would have saved more than $350 million—a pittance, considering the federal budget is $4.1 trillion—and eliminated some of the more draconian vestiges of the drug war. It would have also slashed funding for mental health and drug addiction treatment at a time when drug overdoses are killing more than 50,000 Americans a year and when healthcare “reform” is promising to cut care for tens of millions more.

Trump had somehow found a way to make the opiate crisis worse, and so a national outcry ensued.

Nobody likes a critic, especially if the nobody is Donald Trump and the critics include Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and so Team Trump folded.

As per the budget request formally submitted by Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney to Congress on Tuesday, Trump is now proposing to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from social programs, including health care, education and food stampsbut keep ONDCP more or less intact.  

ONDCP would receive $368 million in the next fiscal year. That’s down from $379 million last year, but still more than enough to function.  

Congress still needs to approve the Trump spending plan, which could change drastically before it takes effect. But as it stands, the flip-flop could be good for the Americans suffering through the opiate crisis: more than 3 million opiate addicts in need of treatment would have been shit out of methadone if the ONDCP cut went through, as Stanford University professor Keith Humphreys observed in the Washington Post, and spending doled out by ONDCP funds mental health and substance abuse treatment programs throughout the country. 

Trump’s reversal was praised by anti-drug organizations like Project SAM—which campaigned against marijuana legalization during the last election cycle and is opposing other efforts to increase access to the drug throughout the country, despite findings from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and elsewhere that suggest marijuana access reduces opiate dependence and overdoses.

Still, this isn’t exactly time to celebrate.

As the Drug Policy Alliance noted, in addition to the massive cuts to health care and education—two things that, when available, tend to keep people off of harmful drug habits in the first place—Trump’s budget sets aside about $27 billion to “fight drugs.” Of that, $15.6 billion of that goes to law enforcement, with the rest to treatment.  

What does that mean, other than a return to the bad old days of waging the drug war like a war rather than a public-health crisis?

It means, among other things, spending money on a wall with Mexico—the same wall that drug-traffickers are already digging under, flinging drugs over and driving them through—instead of paying for wider access to cheap overdose antidotes like Narcan, and leaving major issues like how to stem the flow of deadly synthetic opiates from China unaddressed.

Thus, it still sucks. And could be even worse than we feared.

“This budget represents a major step backward in the fight to end the opioid crisis,” said Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. “Trump’s budget is the latest confirmation that this White House is engaging in a reckless escalation of the War on Drugs, a losing proposition that is intensely unpopular with the public, and a tremendous waste of tax dollars that will needlessly drive up mass incarceration and put at risk the lives of people who struggle with addiction.”

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