President Donald Trump took a swipe at former President Barack Obama as he renewed his pledge to tackle the opioid epidemic, which claims the lives of tens of thousands of people a year.
Trump said that opioid overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled since 1999, speaking after a briefing on the issue.
But while deaths soared, Trump said overall drug prosecutions declined in recent years — a trend Trump vowed to reverse.
“We’re going to be bringing them up and bringing them up rapidly,” he said Aug. 8. “At the end of 2016, there were 23 percent fewer than in 2011. So they looked at this scourge, and they let it go by, and we’re not letting it go by.”
We found that Trump is correct that federal drug prosecutions declined from 2011 to 2016 under Obama, but he lacks evidence to prove that’s the culprit for the opioid overdose crisis. A White House spokesman declined to comment on the record.
Federal drug prosecutions declined under Obama
The Justice Department filed drug charges against 24,638 defendants in 2016, down 23 percent from 2011, according to the Pew Research Center, which analyzed federal data. The data reflects felonies and some serious misdemeanors.
But that’s overall drug prosecutions, not just prosecutions related to opioids. And it only includes federal prosecutions — the vast majority of criminal prosecutions are in state courts.
We found that the drop was due to some of the specific actions the Obama administration took to stop the prosecution of low-level offenders.
Pew noted that in 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors to ensure that each case they brought served “a substantial federal interest.”
Holder mandated that certain low-level nonviolent drug offenders, with no ties to gangs or cartels, would no longer face mandatory minimum sentences. He called for more treatment and alternatives to prison.
Also in 2013, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memorandum to federal attorneys related to prioritizing marijuana prosecutions. He directed attorneys to focus on cartels or other criminal organizations and the use of violence to distribute the drug.
Federal marijuana prosecutions fell to 5,158 in 2016, down 39 percent from five years earlier, Pew found.
Obama-era drop in drug prosecutions not to blame for opioid overdoses
Trump implied that lack of prosecutions likely led to a worsening of the opioid crisis. But experts we contacted had a different view.
“No serious analyst would argue that federal prosecutions have consequences for opioid overdoses,” said University of Maryland criminology professor Peter Reuter. “The drivers of that increase are the arrival of fentanyl, since about 2012, and the overprescription of opioids before it. There has been some decline in heroin retail prices. But no prior effort against high-level distributors and traffickers has ever had sustained success at the retail level.”
Some drug experts including Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, have criticized Obama for taking too long to address the crisis, but not because of a lack of prosecutions.
“Obama deserves blame for neglecting the epidemic and failing to ensure a coordinated federal response,” Kolodny said. “I can think of several areas where it’s fair to criticize him. The decline in federal drug prosecutions is not one of them.”
Trump has a point that the Obama administration was slow to respond to the opioid crisis, said Jon Caulkins, a Carnegie Mellon professor and expert on drug policy.
“Anyone looking at the basic death stats knew we had a problem by 2000,” Caulkins said. “So this is a national disgrace, and Obama was in power for eight of the more recent years, and if ‘the buck stops on the president’s desk’ then it’s fair to put some blame there.”
A September 2016 report from the Obama administration’s Justice Department found that prosecutors could help combat the epidemic by prioritizing prosecution of heroin distributors and of medical professionals who improperly prescribe opioids. The report also stated that federal prosecution had “lagged,” and more prosecutors were needed.
The report noted, however, that investigations “can be difficult when the victim is deceased and the source of the drugs is not immediately obvious.”
Trump said “at the end of 2016, there were 23 percent fewer federal prosecutions than in 2011, so (prosecutors) looked at this surge and they let it go by.” Trump made the statement in the context of rising opioid overdose deaths.
An analysis of data shows that federal drug charges overall declined 23 percent between 2011 and 2016. But that data doesn’t tell us anything about opioid cases specifically.
Where Trump misses the mark is his suggestion that the drop in prosecutions is to blame for the opioid epidemic, which started before Obama’s tenure and then grew worse during his presidency. Obama could have done more earlier to address the epidemic, experts said, but there is no evidence that his strategy on federal drug prosecutions led to a spike in opioid overdose deaths.
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