Trump’s cruel stunt in a state full of suffering

March 27, 2018

Terry Classen explains the backdrop to the opioid epidemic ravaging New Hampshire--and why Trump's punishment-first plan will do nothing to solve it.

STANDING BEFORE a handpicked crowd of supporters, local politicians and law enforcement officials in Manchester, New Hampshire, Donald Trump outlined his vision for combatting the opioid crisis. And combative it was.

Instead of throwing his support behind the growing calls to treat the epidemic as a public health crisis, Trump made clear his intention to launch a revamped war on drugs.

In addition to his disturbing calls for executing drug dealers, the president dragged out a familiar trope from his bag of tricks: scapegoating immigrants. Specifically, he cited the "sanctuary" status of the cities of Lawrence and Boston, Massachusetts as the driving factor behind the influx of deadly synthetic opiates, like fentanyl, into New Hampshire.

Although Trump never lets facts get in the way of dog-whistle talking points, it's still worth dispelling the underlying premise of Trump's blame game; not only are immigrants less likely to be convicted of drug charges than the native-born population, migration into the U.S. has been decreasing for years while drug deaths have risen astronomically. Of the many complex and systematic problems driving the opioid epidemic--a point I will circle back to--immigration is not one of them.

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"We have got to get tough. This isn't about nice anymore," said Trump. Of the many things the U.S. penal system lacks, toughness is not one of them. The United States has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. Mandatory sentencing laws, part of Bill Clinton's now-infamous 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, helped create the multi-billion-dollar privatized prison system. The brutality of what Angela Davis dubbed the "prison-industrial complex" is well-documented, but for Trump, it's still too nice.

When Trump spoke, he was flanked by a former pharmaceutical executive, Drug Czar Alex Alar, and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who has received over $45,000 in speaking fees from opioid manufacturers since 2016. With white supremacist Attorney General Jeff Sessions--a man who once said, "I thought[the Ku Klux Klan] were okay until I learned they smoked pot"--at the helm of the Justice Department, no one should expect the prosecutorial focus of law enforcement agencies to shift from the highly racialized targeting of urban communities of color to Big Pharma's executive boardrooms. This point was underscored by Trump passing the mic to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who managed to use the term "battle" three times in five sentences.

ON A superficial level, New Hampshire seems like an unlikely candidate to have one of the country's worst opioid problems. Trump acknowledged as much when he incredulously asked a crowd of supporters, "How does heroin work with these beautiful lakes and trees?" during a 2016 campaign stop. Although it was clearly not the point Trump was making, New Hampshire's geography presents a challenge for emergency services and treatment options that flatter, more densely populated states don't face. This is especially true in the northern region.

Scenery aside, New Hampshire seems to check off the right boxes for how our society measures a successful state: New Hampshire has the highest median household income in the country and the second lowest unemployment rate. Of course, these metrics are entirely divorced from the reality faced by many residents. Pockets of generational poverty are scattered across the rural northern part of the state, wages are low--anchored by a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour--while rent and health care costs have skyrocketed over the last decade. Coupled with the highest average student debt in country, a wide segment of the population is an unexpected medical bill or a car accident away from financial ruin.

There's a sense among New Hampshire residents that the opioid crisis came out of nowhere. The groundwork for the crisis had been laid over the course of the preceding decades; New Hampshire patients were overprescribed painkillers at twice the rate of the national average, while spending on substance abuse and treatment were some of the lowest in the country. Studies show a majority of individuals suffering from opioid addiction first became addicted to prescription painkillers.

Although the market driving the opioid crisis was largely created by the pharmaceutical industry, the militarized law-and-order approach has almost exclusively focused on targeting those who were buying and selling cheaper street versions of the doctor-prescribed painkillers that got people hooked in the first place. The pharma-backed supply created a demand, and that demand was an invitation for deadly synthetic opioids to flood the state. According to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl-related overdoses increased by 1,629 percent across the state from 2010 to 2015.

For those suffering from substance abuse disorder, their struggles are compounded by a shortage of beds at recovery facilities and the high costs associated with treatment. The stigma of addiction and societally held commitment to fierce individualism both acts as a major barrier to recovery, shaming individuals for their affliction and shaming them for feeling powerless against it.

THE VERY ethos of New Hampshire seems to reflect a form of idealism that is at odds with the holistic approach necessary for a statewide recovery effort. Encapsulated by its motto "Live Free or Die" there's a pronounced libertarian streak that exaggerates personal autonomy and dismisses the sociological phenomena that strongly influence behavior. Just as Ronald Reagan pitched the idea that many are "homeless by choice," there seems to be a lingering sentiment in New Hampshire that opioid addicts are solely responsible for their affliction, and the sole agents of change to overcome it.

Donald Trump is clearly a member of this camp. In his calls to produce what he described as "very, very bad commercials"--a pledge I'm confident he can fulfill--Trump is pushing for a reboot of the failed "Just Say No" campaign of the 1980s. True to the operative word in his revisionist campaign slogan ("Make American Great Again"), Trump set his eyes on emulating the worst years of the war on drugs, while wasting money on the same sort of PR campaign that did nothing to dissuade prior generations from using drugs.

The effect of this approach, aside from inundating the population with tacky public service announcements, is to reinforce the notion that the opioid epidemic is the sum of atomized individuals making bad choices, instead of a systemic issue perpetuated by greedy corporations and a complicit government.

Residents of New Hampshire are accustomed to the political circus; as both a swing state and home to the first presidential primary, New Hampshire commands more political attention than its small population and gross domestic product would otherwise warrant. Trump, seemingly in full campaign mode, struck a radically different tone when he described the Granite State as a "drug-infested den" during a private conversation with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto last year. Trump went on to cite New Hampshire's drug crisis as the reason for his imagined victory in the state. That sort of callous remark, typical of Trump, gives up the game; the suffering of New Hampshire is a means to his broader policy aims of terrorizing immigrant communities and further militarizing the police force.

If there were a sincere commitment to address the opioid crisis, the Trump administration would not have proposed slashing the budget of the Drug Policy Office by 95 percent, as he did earlier this year. Clean needle exchange programs, safe injection sites, free overdose reversal medication, requiring insurance companies to cover non-narcotic painkilling drugs, and providing free treatment options are immediate steps that the government could take to alleviate this crisis.

As socialists, we should fight for these reforms while we continue to reject the continued attacks on immigrants. More broadly, it is our task to lead towards a society in which people assume their rightful place over profits, where those who are suffering will be met with dignity and solutions instead of state violence and persecution.

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