Erika D. Smith

Resist Jeff Sessions. California can’t go back to a war on drugs

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a Drug Enforcement Administration summit at the University of Charleston in West Virginia. The summit was held to offer solutions and strategies for combating the opioid epidemic.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a Drug Enforcement Administration summit at the University of Charleston in West Virginia. The summit was held to offer solutions and strategies for combating the opioid epidemic. The Associated Press

This week, as Congress and the Trump administration were finding new ways to strip people of their health care, the American Psychiatric Association released a poll showing that a quarter of all Americans know someone who is addicted to heroin or prescription painkillers.

That speaks to the devastation of an epidemic that has hooked everyone from suburban soccer moms popping Percocet for back pain to homeless men shooting up under highway bridges. More than 33,000 Americans overdosed in 2015, and new research suggests the real number is probably higher because autopsy reports aren’t always accurate.

These are scary times. But that same poll found that most Americans are clear-eyed about it. They believe – as do a majority of legislators from both sides of the aisle, public health officials, cops and judges – that the best way out of this epidemic is to offer more treatment to addicts, not force prosecutors to return to the days of locking people up.

What I want to know then is what’s wrong with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions?

The former Alabama senator made clear this month that he is hellbent on dragging the country back into a futile war on drugs. No state should be more alarmed than California.

With a burgeoning legal weed industry still forming, thousands of people getting their drug convictions reduced or thrown out under Proposition 64, and a growing population of opioid addicts who need treatment, not prison, no state has as much to lose.

Sen. Kamala Harris hit on this at this month’s Ideas Conference. “Let me tell you what California needs, Jeff Sessions,” she said. “We need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations and dealing with human trafficking – not in going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana.”

But there are plenty of reasons to worry.

Sessions thinks marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin, even though dozens of states have legalized weed for recreational and medical purposes. And he’s “astonished” that people would think of using weed to wean themselves of opioids, despite new research showing that opioid overdoses dropped 33 percent in 13 states after they legalized medical marijuana.

“I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store,” he said in March. “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.”

OK, grandpa. We know. This is your brain on drugs.

Sessions has always been out of touch with the times, preferring ideology to reality. But recently, he has shown just how dangerous he can be.

Last week, he issued a policy memo ordering federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” for drug crimes – something that will override judicial discretion and trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

Previous guidelines, issued by former Attorney General Eric Holder, wisely reserved the harshest penalties for “serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers” instead of low-level drug offenders. That allowed, among other things, for California to stop sending young men of color to overcrowded prisons and destroying entire communities in the process. But no more.

The only thing worse than Sessions’ policy memo is his reason for issuing it.

He insists, tossing aside facts just like the rest of the Trump administration, that the opioid epidemic is driving a spike in homicides in a handful of big cities. Never mind that violent crime is nowhere near where it was during the 1980s or 1990s.

To reverse this trend of drug and gang violence, Sessions says the nation must go back to being tough on crime and that people must go back to just saying no to drugs – you know, because it worked so well when Nancy Reagan told us to say that the first time.

It was in the hills of West Virginia, a state that voted for President Donald Trump where someone drops dead of an opioid overdose every 10 hours, that Sessions made his latest pitch for a renewed crackdown. He talked about how “drug trafficking is an inherently violent business” and why prevention is critical.

It didn’t sell well.

“It’s one thing to (say) ‘say no,’ said Dr. Michael Kilkenny, medical director of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department in West Virginia. “But what are they going to say back?”

Sessions ignores how the opioid epidemic is different from the crack cocaine epidemic, and what we’ve learned since then about the causes of addiction, and the effectiveness of doing treatment and prevention the right way.

People getting hooked on opioids today are largely doing so accidentally. The college student who got his wisdom teeth taken out or the young mother that jogged 5 miles and had a knee injury.

In fact, because of the proliferation of prescription painkillers, addiction has been growing faster among women than men. This is why hospitals in Sacramento County and across California have seen an uptick in the number of babies born with opioid painkillers in their systems.

“It’s not the mom you expect anymore. It’s not just the mom who came in off the street,” Dr. Kristin Hoffman, of UC Davis Children’s Hospital, told The Bee. “We see moms in all socioeconomic classes.”

“Just Say No” isn’t going to work because they didn’t mean to say “yes” in the first place.

One would think that the Trump administration, which squeaked into power with the backing of voters from states absolutely ravaged by opioids, would come up with a more rational strategy to address this epidemic. That it would waste no time and spare no resources to curtail addiction rates. But no.

Until this week, when the administration caved to bipartisan demands from Congress, Trump had planned to essentially defund the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is coordinating the nation’s response to the opioid crisis.

Trump has reversed himself – mostly. But instead of patting the president on the back, I’m wondering why his administration is still insisting on cuts at all. Even under the current budget plan, the agency will go from 75 employees to 65, assuming Congress signs off on it. Millions of dollars more would go toward law enforcement to presumably fight drug crimes.

In the end, it will be up to Congress to neuter Sessions, and save Americans from the throes of opioid addiction and spare them from jail for smoking weed. This attorney general is a dangerous throwback, even for a Republican Party dedicated to making America old school – er, “great” – again.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith