U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions laid out a three-point plan to combat the opioid epidemic this week, alarming drug policy experts who emphasize the importance of treatment over punishment to address the drug crisis.
"There are three main ways to fight back against this problem: Prevention, criminal enforcement and treatment," Sessions said at a youth summit in New Hampshire on Tuesday. "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."
But the attorney general proceeded to downplay the role of treatment in addressing the drug crisis. "Treatment," he said, "often comes too late" — and "recovery is not certain."
"I have seen families spend all their savings and retirement money on treatment programs for their children, just to see these programs sometimes fail," he continued.
"He appeared to damn treatment," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director at the Drug Policy Alliance, told ATTN:.
"His comments suggested he's either ignorant or indifferent to multiple decades of evidence regarding the ineffectiveness of the supply-side and law enforcement strategy," Nadelmann added. "He seems indifferent to the negative consequences of those strategies."
Drug rehabilitation programs aren't guaranteed to keep people from abusing drugs — the relapse rate is about 40 to 60 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) — but focusing on the shortcomings of treatment ignores the reality of addiction. Relapsing doesn't mean the treatment was a failure; effective addiction treatment requires "continual evaluation and modification as appropriate, similar to the approach taken for other chronic diseases," NIDA explained.
Sessions' comments are also concerning because they suggest the federal government plans to prioritize criminal punishment for drug trafficking over expanding access to treatment facilities.
"Drug addiction has become one of the many social problems that we've relegated to the criminal justice system," Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU Center for Justice, wrote in a blog post. "But as with homelessness and mental illness, handcuffs and jail cells haven't made things better and have cost much more than the treatment and services that can. It doesn't have to be this way. America can safely reduce our reliance on incarceration."
With record-high overdose deaths, already-limited treatment options have been strained, though.
In 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that only 11 percent of people suffering from drug or alcohol received treatment. At least 316,000 who attempted to get help weren't able to due to a lack of beds or rehabilitation services.
Sessions comments represent "a throwback to the thinking and the rhetoric of the late 80s, early 90s drug war," Nadelmann told ATTN:. While that kind of rhetoric might "strike a chord" with some groups, there's been a dramatic "evolution in sentiment" in terms of drug policy — both among the public and in law enforcement circles.
The problem, as Nadelmann sees it, is Sessions confronts a problem by asking: "How do you turn it into an opportunity to basically increase criminalization and law enforcement?'"