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August 28, 2018

Deputy AG Rosenstein suggests more federal prosecutions are key to battling opioid crisis ... but that really hasn't been working

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has this notable New York Times opinion piece under the headlined "Fight Drug Abuse, Don’t Subsidize It."  Here are is how it starts and ends:

Almost 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, a shocking 54 percent increase since 2012.  Dangerous opioids such as heroin and fentanyl contributed to two-thirds of the deaths.  This killer knows no geographic, socioeconomic or age limits.  It strikes city dwellers and Midwestern farmers, Hollywood celebrities and homeless veterans, grandparents and teenagers.

Remarkably, law enforcement efforts actually declined while deaths were on the rise.  Federal drug prosecutions fell by 23 percent from 2011 to 2016, and the median drug sentence doled out to drug traffickers decreased by 20 percent from 2009 to 2016.  The Trump administration is working to reverse those trends.  Prosecutions of drug traffickers are on the rise, and the surge in overdose deaths is slowing.

Unfortunately, some cities and counties are considering sponsoring centers where drug users can abuse dangerous illegal drugs with government help.  Advocates euphemistically call them “safe injection sites,” but they are very dangerous and would only make the opioid crisis worse.

These centers would be modeled on those operating in Canada and some European countries. They invite visitors to use heroin, fentanyl and other deadly drugs without fear of arrest.  The policy is “B.Y.O.D.” — bring your own drugs — but staff members help people abuse drugs by providing needles and stand ready to resuscitate addicts who overdose....

That is not the way to end the opioid crisis. Americans struggling with addiction need treatment and reduced access to deadly drugs.  They do not need a taxpayer-sponsored haven to shoot up.

To end the drug crisis, we should educate everyone about the dangers of opioid drugs, help drug users get treatment and aggressively prosecute criminals who supply the deadly poison.  Under the leadership of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice is delivering results.  Many federal, state and local agencies are working with us to combat opioid addiction.  Cities and counties should join us and fight drug abuse, not subsidize it.

I am disinclined to take up here the debate over safe injection sites, which could merit a volume.  I will be content here to point to this recent report from Europe indicating "evaluation studies have found an overall positive impact on the communities where these facilities are located," as well as this new meta-research indicating that "Medically Supervised Injection Centres ... had a significant favourable result in relation to drug-related crime and a significant unfavourable result in relation to problematic heroin use or injection." At Vox, German Lopez covers these research matters in this recent article headlined "Safe injection sites were thought to reduce drug overdoses. The research isn’t so clear."

I am inclined to take issue with how DAG Rosenstein seems to make a case for more federal prosecutions to address overdose deaths and the opioid crisis.  Though he laments that "federal drug prosecutions fell by 23 percent from 2011 to 2016, and the median drug sentence doled out to drug traffickers decreased by 20 percent from 2009 to 2016," DAG Rosenstein leaves out the fact that declines in marijuana and crack prosecutions and the impact of fairer crack guidelines account for these realities (see USSC quick facts data on marijuana and crack).  Meanwhile, as this USSC report explains, in "fiscal year 2016, there were 2,763 heroin trafficking offenders [sentenced in federal court, meaning the] number of heroin offenders has increased by 29.4% since fiscal year 2012."  In other words, though overall federal drug prosecutions have gone down through 2016, federal prosecution of heroin has been going up significantly this period when overdose deaths from dangerous opioids were also surging. 

In addition, there is a basis to question the statement that prosecutions of drug traffickers are now on the rise, as this data from TRAC suggests that FY 2017 and 2018 has seen record low numbers of federal drug trafficking prosecutions.  And to assert that the "surge in overdose deaths is slowing" is not all that reassuring given the new preliminary report of 72,000 overdose deaths in 2017 compared to 64,000 in 2016 (though I suppose it is correct to say the "surge" is slowing given that this 8,000-person increase in deaths is less than the 11,000 increase from 2015 to 2016).  Especially at a time of crisis, I sincerely want to believe that, as DAG Rosenstein asserts, the "Department of Justice is delivering results."  But the data I can find does not seem to support this claim.

August 28, 2018 at 04:52 PM | Permalink

Comments

Well, I suppose even a "good guy" like Rosenstein can spout some lies, damn lies, and statistics if it means more prosecutors for his beloved DOJ. It's why none of them are really to be trusted as concerns the size and power of the DOJ.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Aug 28, 2018 7:46:16 PM

Or maybe I should replace the "DOJ" above with drug/prison/industrial complex.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Aug 28, 2018 7:47:28 PM

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