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Columns
Other view: The war on drugs explains the Trump administration

What’s the standard line on President Donald Trump these days? That he’s an erratic creature of no fixed commitments and no stable policy objectives? Not so fast. In fact, Trump’s entire administration can be understood through the lens of his weird, consistent, unwavering adherence to a 1980s concept of the War on Drugs.

This adherence unifies his policy actions: not only the appointment of drug-war hard-liner Jeff Sessions as attorney general but also his approach to immigration and “the wall,” his calls for a revival of “stop and frisk” and “law and order” policies, key features of the Republican House health-care bill, the bromances with Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin, and even the initial proposal to defund the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

After descending that Trump Tower escalator in July 2015, Trump made headlines when he kicked off his campaign by proclaiming that Mexico was sending us “rapists.” Less noted has been that he began his list of woes coming from the South by castigating Mexican immigrants for “bringing drugs.” Already in that speech the solution he offered to this caricatured problem was “the wall.” Almost two years later, the wall is still meant to solve the problem of drugs, as in this tweet from April: “If the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be!”

Trump’s well-received joint address to Congress in February also explained his desire to limit immigration by focusing on drugs: “We’ve defended the borders of other nations while leaving our own borders wide open for anyone to cross and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate.”

No surprise, then, that Sessions has been working steadily, since his confirmation, to restore the building blocks of the War on Drugs that political leaders from both parties have been quietly removing for the past five years. He has ordered a review of federal policies on state legalization of marijuana and appears to be seeking an end to the policy of federal non-interference with the cascade of legalization efforts. He has ordered a review of consent decrees, whose purpose is to spur police reform, and sought to delay the implementation of Baltimore’s. He has recently handed down guidance requiring federal prosecutors to seek the stiffest possible sentences available for drug offenses.

To support these efforts, Trump has proposed hiring 10,000 immigration officersand 5,000 Border Patrol agents and beefing up support for police departments. According to the White House website, “The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration” for a country that “needs more law enforcement.”

The Obama administration had begun to drive toward replacing criminal-justice strategies for drug control with public-health strategies. It wasn’t whistling in the dark but following, at least in part, the innovative model of drug control pioneered by Portugal. Marijuana has been legalized there. Use and modest possession of other drugs have been decriminalized, but large-scale trafficking is still criminal. The criminal-justice system focuses on those large-scale traffickers, while public-health strategies and harm-reduction techniques pinpoint users and low-level participants in the drug economy. Adolescent drug use is down, the percentage of users seeking treatment is up, and Portugal is interdicting increased quantities of illegal narcotics.

Countries across Central and South America would like to follow Portugal and transition from a criminal-justice paradigm to an individual and public-health paradigm for drug control. They have advocated for this change at the United Nations but have been blocked by Putin’s Russia. Indeed, Putin is one of the world’s most steadfast advocates for the 1980s War on Drugs concept.

Of course, Trump has expressed a strange affinity for Putin and also for Duterte, the president of the Philippines. Duterte has called for the “slaughter” of the Philippines’ estimated 3 million addicts. The death toll from extrajudicial killings that he seems to have sparked has already reached into the thousands. The response from the United States? Trump praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem” and invited him to the White House.

Yet Trump’s initial budget plan involved proposing nearly complete defunding of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which was founded by congressional legislation in 1988. How does that square?

The Obama administration deployed that office to “restore balance” to U.S. drug-control efforts, increasing emphasis on treatment, prevention and diversion programs, and fostering a move toward a health-based strategy. The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and requirements that insurers support mental-health and addiction treatment undergirded this effort, supporting the emergence of programs designed to divert low-level drug offenders out of the criminal-justice system and into treatment. This has made for the very promising beginnings of a health-based approach to drug control.

The Trump administration has painted a bullseye on this new policy strategy and is firing away. While the White House has backed off defunding the Office of National Drug Control Policy, it continues to pursue the reversal of the Medicaid expansion. The administration appears to think narcotics control can be achieved entirely through the tools of criminal justice.

But we tried that in the 1980s, the decade of “Miami Vice,” the era when the Los Angeles police chief, Daryl Gates, could testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot.” We know where that story ends: with increased incarceration, further degradation of urban neighborhoods, no durable change in rates of drug use and a failure to address addiction.

So, yes, Trump has a vision, and he’s moving steadily toward it, wrongheaded though it is, dragging us along with him, as if into a wall.


Mailbag
Letter: Let's vote by mail

Let’s vote by mail

An excellent way to better serve postal customers would be to implement a nation-wide vote-by-mail system. Idaho currently has an absentee ballot system to make it more convenient for voters although not everyone uses it.

Voting by mail has many advantages over traditional polling: It is cost-effective, it has increased in participation of voters, it is easier for election officials to conduct, allows for a more accurate picture of eligible voters by keeping voting lists up to date and it gives voters a longer opportunity to study ballots to find answers to questions. It also makes voting more accessible for working, disabled Americans and senior citizens.

Oregon currently has a “tried and true” vote-by-mail system where voters may drop off their ballots without paying postage, if they desire. In an Oregon all-mail 1996 Senate special election, even though 1.8 million ballots were cast in this hard-fought, highly partisan contest, not a single complaint (of fraud) surfaced. In fact, during the 15 years Oregon has held mail elections, only one case of fraud has been prosecuted.

Let’s make voting represent the voice of more Americans.

John Paige

President, Idaho State | Association of Letter Carriers


Columns
Stapilus: Who votes, and what that means

The regular election day of mid-May passed barely noticed across most of Idaho, as it often does. And low attention often means low turnouts.

And what do low turnouts mean for election results? What’s the difference, in other words, between that and higher turnout elections?

One particular result from May 16 deserves a close look for just this point. It is the ballot issue in Bonneville County over whether to create a community college taxing district, the prerequisite to creating a new community college at Idaho Falls. (There’s currently an Eastern Idaho Technical College, but it’s much more limited in scope; it will be supplanted by the new community college.)

The issue was hotly debated locally, though the debate was not really partisan. It did sharply split local Republicans. The Bonneville Republican committee took a stance against it, and threw in campaign money as well. But a Republican women’s organization argued in favor, and a number of local Republican officials, along with Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, supported the measure.

The ballot issue passed with 71.4 percent of the vote; a two-thirds vote had been needed. The two-thirds mark often is a tough barrier to overcome. Are there any clues to tell us more specifically how it was done?

The college issue was prominent in the area, and it drew a significant voter turnout—significant, at least, by comparison with the norm. A year ago, in a presidential election year, the May election pulled only 19 percent of the electorate. This year (again, in Bonneville) it drew 28 percent; a significant increase.

The turnout was not uniform across all precincts. But some voting patterns did stick out.

Turnout was higher than 25 percent in eight precincts; in all but one of them, the college proposal won by more than two-thirds. Turnout was generally strong on the southern and western sides of Idaho Falls, and that is where the college proposal was strongest.

As you might expect with such a lopsided result, just a few precincts outright opposed the district—three out of 51—and in two of those the turnout was well below average. (It was 22.9 percent and 20.9 percent in precincts 41 and 44, respectively.)

The Idaho Falls Post Register noted, “Of the 14 precincts with over 33.3 percent opposition to the creation of the community college, just one had a turnout over 25 percent – Precinct 54, generally speaking, the Ririe area.” That Ririe precinct opposed the district by a close vote, 86-80, and it’s worth recalling that this precinct in November voted 81.3 percent for Donald Trump. If you translated that percentage to the Ririe vote in May, it would have an anti-district vote of 134-32.

The top turnout precinct was 56 (at 45 percent), but that was an aberration since it was the mail-in “precinct”. (Take that as another argument in favor of mail-in voting.) Of the next four high-turnout regular precincts, three (the exception being Ririe) passed the district not just by the county-wide average of a little more than two to one, but by more than three to one.

As the Post Register added, “clearly just getting voters to the polls is what matters.”

Voting counts.