Jeff Sessions’ approach to the opioid epidemic is outdated and counterfactual

President Donald Trump listens as Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, after Vice President Mike Pence administered the oath of office to Sessions. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ record in the Senate guaranteed he would be a poor choice for his new role. With his confirmation hearings (sorta) behind him, Sessions has already begun to make good on that certainty.

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Sessions went to the New Hampshire Youth Summit on Opioid Awareness and delivered a brief talk about the horrors of opioid abuse. As Rare’s Heroin in America series documented last year, a lot of what Sessions said was quite right.

“These drugs are powerful, and opioid addiction can take hold quickly,” he warned. “Too many teens and adults have overdosed. And the road ahead for people fighting their addictions is tough.” That’s all true, and the danger these substances pose ought not be minimized.

The trouble comes with Sessions’ proposals for addressing this epidemic and drug use in America more broadly:

There are three main ways to fight back against this problem: Prevention, criminal enforcement and treatment. Criminal enforcement is essential to stopping the transnational criminal organizations which ship drugs into our country, and to stop the thugs and gangs who use violence and extortion to move their product.


The most effective solution in the 1980s and early ‘90s — when, for example, we saw a significant decline in teen drug use — was the Prevention Campaign. People began to stop using drugs.  Drug users were not cool.

At Mike Riggs at Reason points out, those 1980s and early 1990s programs Sessions mentions most famously include the “Just Say No” campaign. Meanwhile, Riggs says, the “National Institute for Drug Abuse reported this past December—as in, three months ago—that past-year use of illicit drugs among eighth, 10th, and 12th graders ‘continu[es] to decline to the lowest level in the history of the survey'” and “buckets of studies have shown that Just Say No-era anti-drug programming doesn’t work.”

In other words, Sessions maybe gets points for nostalgic good intentions here, but in an attorney general, nostalgia shouldn’t stand in the way of, you know, facts.

RELATED: Sessions’ states rights hypocrisy on marijuana shouldn’t be ignored

But more interesting to me is Sessions’ treatment of the other two options he lists: criminal enforcement and treatment.

He complains that treatment as a solution often arrives too late for many individuals — and that’s true, but Sessions is ignoring the biggest reason people don’t seek the help they need: they don’t want to go to jail.

The criminal enforcement against drug use about which Sessions speaks so enthusiastically is actually a huge hindrance to safe treatment that can break addictions and save lives.

This is just one reason why the Trump administration’s Sessions-led plan to escalate the failed War on Drugs is so tragic. Federal prohibition makes the opioid epidemic and drug abuse way more dangerous than they have to be. In fact, as I argued at The Week last year, the single most important thing the feds could to do stanch opioid abuse is legalize those very drugs:

The crown jewel of evidence for this point is the experience of Portugal, whose culture and form of government are similar enough to our own to make comparison reasonable. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. All drugs.

A decade later, hard drug abuse had dropped by half. Drug overdose deaths in Portugal are now all but nonexistent: just three for every million people each year. (Were overdose deaths happening in America at a Portuguese rate, we’d see fewer than 1,000 die annually, more than a 90 percent drop from the current numbers on opioid-related deaths, let alone total overdose deaths.)

Oh, and the treatment Sessions says often comes too late? Portugal has seen progress there, too:

Prohibition even makes safe treatment less likely for addicts who know they have a problem and actively want to change their lives. After decriminalization, Portugal saw the rate of people seeking addiction treatment nearly double, because now there is essentially no downside to doing so. With a looming threat of jail or coercive court-mandated rehab stints shaped as much by policy goals than each individual’s unique health care needs, the same cannot be said here.

RELATED: If Trump wants to keep Mexican drugs out of the country, he should try ending the drug war

I generally try to assume the best intentions in people like Jeff Sessions, even though they combine a gross amount of power with a dangerous lack of creative thinking, basic decency and regard for well-established facts. I’m not suggesting Sessions is emphasizing law-enforcement solutions to drug use because he wants the negative consequences such a plan will bring.

But that does not change the fact that those negative consequences will ensue. If Sessions is serious about cutting back on drug use, he needs to start by doing everything he can to cut back on the drug war.

What do you think?

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