Three Things Wrong With The State Of The Union

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“Let justice roll down like waters.”
Amos 5:24

Dear Friends and Colleagues, 

 I am inspired by those parents who have lost a child to overdose and chosen to share their story and their pain. In his State of the Union speech, President Biden shared the story of Doug Griffin, from my home state of New Hampshire, who lost his daughter Courtney to an overdose.

Across the country grieving family members have, as President Biden said last night, “turned pain into purpose, working to end stigma and change laws.”

It was fitting to honor a parent who, out of their loss, has committed themselves to change and the creation of recovery-friendly communities.

In 2022, Biden made strides by giving the first ever State of the Union mention to harm reduction. The administration made good on its promise to remove one big barrier to treatment by getting rid of the “X waiver” for prescribing buprenorphine. They also are making progress on expanding telehealth options, take-home methadone, and ensuring access to medically assisted treatment options inside of the prison system.

These are good and important steps forward. Unfortunately, it isn’t what President Biden focused on in his speech. 

What got major time and focus was the “surge” in their supply-side enforcement efforts. 

President Biden said:

Let’s launch a major surge to stop fentanyl production, sale, and trafficking, with more drug detection machines to inspect cargo and stop pills and powder at the border.

Working with couriers like FedEx to inspect more packages for drugs. Strong penalties to crack down on fentanyl trafficking.

 It is a good thing that President Biden isn’t blaming the illicit fentanyl crisis on immigrants or falsely claiming that building a “wall” on the southern border would stop drugs from coming into the country. (Some debunking of those myths here and here.)

I’m going to lay out my three big concerns. But, feel free to shoot us an email with your reactions! Rev. Sharp thinks I’m being too generous. Glad to know your thoughts. 

Here we go:

First, this narrative fails to acknowledge why we have illicit fentanyl on the streets: failed federal policy and the “iron law of prohibition.” Prohibition of a substance doesn’t make it go away, especially when there is high demand. But strict enforcement does mean that traffickers will push more and more potent versions of the drug to try and evade detection. 

This is why unprecedented shutdowns at our borders during the pandemic contributed to an increase in overdose deaths. With fewer opportunities to move heroin, drug traffickers sped up the transition to illicit fentanyl: more illicit fentanyl, more deaths.  

Second, we have little reason to believe that enforcement efforts will work. The DEA and CBP (Customs and Border Protection) continue to set records for the amount of fentanyl seized. But, in the midst of rising inflation, one of the few things to keep getting cheaper over the past few years is illicit fentanyl. 

Trying to control the supply of opioids while there is still such high demand is like a dangerous game of whack-a-mole. 

Increasingly, we aren’t just talking about illicit fentanyl but a whole host of analogues and other novel opioid-like substances. Isotonitazene, a synthetic opioid even more potent than fentanyl, continues to spread throughout the drug supply.  

Third, let’s imagine for a moment that I’m wrong. All the new investments in drug-detecting technology and increased enforcement work incredibly well. The United States is able to take down multiple cartels all at once and cut the supply of fentanyl in half overnight. 

What happens? We actually have a pretty good idea. I wrote about this scenario for the New Hampshire Union Leader:

In the 1990s, Australia had a skyrocketing overdose rate. But, in late 2000, law enforcement stopped multiple shipping containers filled with heroin. As a result, two major trafficking organizations stopped operations in the country. The effect was a rapid increase in heroin prices.

Immediately, murders, violent crime, and methamphetamine use (a drug that can be produced anywhere) all went up. People desperate for the drug and unable to afford the higher prices turned to crime to afford the higher prices. The market disruption increased competition among remaining criminal organizations and fueled violence. Years later, after a sustained reduction in supply, Australia saw some reduction in heroin use, but not before paying a very high price.

While I appreciate some of the important steps the administration has taken over the past few years, the supply side focus in the State of the Union is bad policy and bad politics. 

This was a chance to talk about demand reduction. And, without going into all of the details, praise the important public health measure being taken to make treatment of all kinds more accessible. 

The supply-side focus is a bad policy approach for all the reasons I’ve listed above. 

It’s bad politics because it sounds like a less aggressive version of the same plan Donald Trump has proposed. 

Both politicians have pledged to stop the supply of fentanyl. But Trump has promised to do it through military invasions, suspension of due process, and executions. 

Biden has promised to accomplish the same through better technology at the border, increased mail screening, and legal actions against cartels. 

In towns that have lost more lives to the overdose crisis than they did in World War II or the Vietnam War, which plan sounds more promising? 

I’m concerned that when the options presented are a choice between a “surge” and all-out war, a lot of folks will want to choose war. 

It is critical we let others know, these are not the only options.  

We need to tell a story that centers on demand reduction, rejects a culture of punishment, and embraces a public health approach to drugs and drug addiction. 

That’s why we are glad you are here. Let’s spread the word. 

Keep the Faith, 

Timothy McMahan King 
Senior Fellow, Clergy for a New Drug Policy

Angels of Addictions

Mary Ellen D’Angelo-Lombardi (L), Anne Marie (R)

We wanted to highlight another amazing parent from New Hampshire, Anne Marie Zafanga. She lost her daughter Jacqueline the same year Doug Griffin lost Courtney. Anne Marie painted a portrait of her daughter and brought it to a local support group. Soon other parents requested portraits of their lost children.

Anne Marrie has now painted hundreds of portraits at the requests of families across the country in a memorial that calls for action.