Drugs

Trump's Budget Doubles Down on the Drug War

Plenty of spending on cops, and money to burn on a border wall that will accomplish nothing.

Photo Credit: DEA

The Trump administration released its proposed Fiscal Year 2019 budget Monday, and it looks like a return to last century's failed law-and-order drug war policies. While paying lip service to the nation's opioid crisis, the administration shows its priorities by asking for more money for Trump's quixotic border wall than to actually address opioids.

In contrast with the Obama administration, which sought to tip the balance between law enforcement and treatment and prevention by tilting funding toward more counselors than cops, the Trump budget tilts back toward law enforcement.

The budget would also gut the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, the drug czar's office), a move that is alarming mainstream critics of Trump's drug policies, but one that more radical critics of drug prohibition—on both the left and the right—are not too upset about. For such critics, the drug czar's office is just one more prohibitionist federal bureaucracy, and shrinking or eliminating it would be a good thing.

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But overall, the Trump budget is doubling down on the drug war.

Here are some of the lowlights from the proposed budget:

  • The DEA gets a spending increase of $400 million, despite its legacy of obstruction, thuggery, and corruption.
  • $18 million in funding over two years for the border wall, even though it won't stop the flow of drugs and even though undocumented immigration over the border is at a historic low.
  • The Interagency Crime and Drug Enforcement program, an entity that coordinates federal agencies to go after drug sellers, gets a $5 million increase.
  • Restored funding to the tune of $50 million for an anti-drug media campaign, a failed initiative that was zeroed out in 2012 after studies showed that the over-the-top campaigns may have actually increased drug use.
  • $43 million for expanding drug courts, a misbegotten initiative where the criminal justice system pretends to have medical expertise and punishes people suffering from drug dependency for failing to get better.  There is also mounting evidence that drug courts reject evidence-based approaches to treating drug use.
  • A $20 million cut in the Second Chance Act, a program aimed at helping people leaving prison reenter society.
  • It is also deeply concerning to see that the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) would be moved from ONDCP to the DEA. The Reagan-era program incentives state and local law enforcement to make drug arrests and then bill the federal government, allowing states to fill their courts and prisons with drug offenders on the cheap.
  • $333 million for the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program. The figure is actually a slight decline from the last years of the Obama administration, but still represents hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to state and local law enforcement to incentivize drug arrests and prosecutions.
  • Overall, an increase of $775 million for the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security for drug war efforts.

"Trump’s budget proposes new funds for addressing the opioid overdose crisis, but far more money is being sought by the president to escalate the war on drugs," said Grant Smith, interim director of Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. "We know from decades of locking people up for drugs that it doesn’t work to curb drug use, but Trump’s budget proposes wasting billions of dollars to do exactly that. That money would be much better spent on harm reduction and treatment interventions that actually prevent overdoses and save lives."

The Trump budget does include $900 million in increased funding for the Department of Health and Human Services to address the opioid epidemic, and it claims it would allocate a total of $13 billion to "combat the opioid epidemic," but that figure mixes treatment, prevention and war on drugs funding. And it's still less than what Trump wants to spend on his border wall.

The bright side is that the Trump FY 2019 budget is likely dead on arrival. It's a wish list, likely to be shredded and reconstructed during budget negotiations, and unlikely to look much like the proposal by the time things get done. Still, it demonstrates Trump's priorities with cold clarity.

Phillip Smith has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. Smith is currently a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute