Interpreting Donald Trump’s “Oxy Electorate”: On the Interaction of Pain and Politics

On January 20 – inauguration day – the HBO news talk show Real Time with Bill Maher aired its fifteenth season premier. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump was the topic of the hour. After Maher and his panel of pundits concluded their discussion, the host delivered an editorial monologue analyzing Trump’s electoral victory and offered a provocative comparison:

“Here on inauguration day, in the spirit of new beginnings, liberals have to stop calling Trump voters rubes and simpletons and instead reach out and feel their pain, the pain they insist we didn’t see. And there is ample evidence for that pain. Did you know that of the fourteen states with the highest painkiller prescriptions per person, they all went for Trump? Trump won eighty percent of the states that have the biggest heroin problem… So let’s stop calling Trump voters idiots and fools and call them what they are: fucking drug addicts!”Read More »

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Donald Trump on Drugs: Election 2016, Part I

In response to Donald Trump’s sniffly debate performances over the last month-and-a-half of the 2016 presidential campaign, the Twittersphere erupted in wild speculation that the alleged billionaire had prepared with lines other than his taking points. “Notice Trump sniffling all the time. Coke user?” ventured Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, one-time presidential candidate, and, not incidentally, licensed medical doctor. Others consulted drug authorities, of a sort. Self-described cocaine “expert” Carrie Fisher told a curious fan that she “ABSOLUTEY” thought Trump appeared like a “coke head.”

Dean’s jab, relatively on par with some of Trump’s own supposed zingers, was immediately scrutinized and dismissed by commentators. But it is curious that drugs have only sporadically entered the national conversation when, in recent years, opioid overdoses – usually in combination with other substances – routinely kill about 1,000 Americans a month. Moreover, four states are voting on medical marijuana and five, including the hugely influential California, may fully legalize.

While Trump probably doesn’t toot key bumps before going onstage, it is worth considering in a serious way what a potential future commander-in-chief believes about an issue near and dear to Points readers: drug policy. What follows is an attempted breakdown of Trump’s position on the three key topics mentioned above. I say “attempted” because, like with most things, his often contradictory stance on drugs is characteristically hard to pin down.

Medical Marijuana

Sitting for an interview on the O’Reilly Factor in February, Trump displayed some surprising compassion for others after host Bill O’Reilly called medical marijuana a “ruse”: “But I know people that have serious problems and they did that, they really – it really does help them,” Trump professed.

He didn’t offer any clarifying details but said that he was “in favor of it a hundred percent.”

Of course, Trump would take no action for or against such an initiative at the federal level. “Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen, right? Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states,” he told a Reno crowd during the primaries last year.

Recreational Marijuana

Still toeing the small-federal-government line of the party that gave him its nomination, Trump similarly left recreational weed for states to decide. I think.

During a debate last summer, he opined that “[regulating marijuana] is bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it’s bad and I feel strongly about that.” When pressed by the moderator about states’ rights to set their own policy, he verbally shrugged: “If they vote for it, they vote for it. But they’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado – some big, big problems.” (Again, no specifics.)

Later, at the same rally he proclaimed medical a state issue, he softened his tone. “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.”

Notably, during the cultural hysteria of the crack epidemic, Trump supported full legalization. “We’re losing badly [bigly?] the War on Drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.” When pressed about his 1990 statement last year, Trump must have misremembered. “I said it’s something that should be studied and should continue to be studied. But it’s not something I’d be willing to do right now. I think it’s something that I’ve always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing. We don’t want to build walls. We don’t want to do anything. And if you’re not going to do the policing, you’re going to have to start thinking about other alternatives. But it’s not something I would want to do.”

Opioid Addiction

Trump calls the problem of opioid addiction “tremendous.”

He may very well believe that his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border will stem the tide of heroin into the states, but traffickers are responding to demand cultivated domestically.

In any case, don’t expect any enlightened harm reduction rhetoric from a man who idolizes Vladimir Putin. Earlier this year, hardline Russian delegates to the United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session on Drugs insisted that that very term – “harm reduction” – appear nowhere in the resulting document outlining the contours of future global drug policy. Among the common treatment modalities in Russia are reportedly hypnosis, flogging, and comatose electroshock therapy. Unsurprisingly, addiction and HIV transmission through injection drug use are pressing social problems in Russia.

It remains unclear whether the experience of Trump’s own brother Freddy, who died addicted to alcohol in 1981, inspires any empathy for the plight of users. He did, however, give a second chance to at least one Miss USA accused of drug use.

I guess he’ll keep us in suspense!

Check back next week for part II of Point’s election 2016 candidate breakdown.

 

“Doubleplusungood” – NORML’s Prisoners of War on the Front Lines of Sentencing Reform

In the early nineties, a woman from Alabama, responding to a prisoner survey conducted by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) on behalf of her incarcerated husband mused, “…someday, [marijuana] will be legal. Maybe there will be a lot of non-violent people released from the Government and bac [sic] to their families.” The statement has proven remarkably prescient, as recent events surrounding both legalization and sentencing reform have shown. It is also clear that despite these promising new steps, obstacles and controversy remain.

marijuana_map.0.0
We’re getting there

On January 12, 2016, Wendell Callahan brutally murdered his ex-girlfriend and her two children in Columbus Ohio. The story in The Columbus Dispatch quickly informed readers that Callahan had “twice benefited” from retroactive reductions in federal sentencing guidelines. This was in reference to a 2014 decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent commission in the judiciary, to first reduce federal sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and later under intense public pressure, to make these changes retroactive.

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Why did the FBI stop their investigation of Straight, Incorporated?

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome a post from Marcus Chatfield, who has spent years studying Straight, Inc. Chatfield is a recent graduate of Goddard College, where he received an Individualized Bachelor of Arts degree in the prevention of institutional child abuse. His undergraduate thesis, Institutionalized Persuasion, was self-published in December, 2014. He is a prospective grad student living in Florida. Enjoy!

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The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) recently arranged for the release of documents from the FBI’s investigation of Straight, Inc., a controversial teen treatment program. An initial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the author in 2010 received no response and the collection was only released after subsequent requests and inquiries by the OGIS. After the FBI reviewed more than 1,224 pages in their possession, 970 were released with redactions and 254 pages were deleted, withheld by their Record/Information Dissemination Section. Almost all of these records were accumulated between 1992 and 1994 during a Grand Jury investigation that initiated in the Middle District of Florida. The investigation focused on fraudulent financial activities within the Straight, Inc. organization and the documents clearly state that federal authorities had evidence of criminal insurance fraud committed by Straight executives (p.55). Perhaps even more important, the documents seem to indicate that the FBI’s investigation was stopped before agents had a chance to review all of the evidence or explore all relevant leads (p.109-111).

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The Forgotten Drug War: One Million Drug Addicts (Washington, D.C., 1919)

In 1918, the Treasury Department established a Special Narcotic Committee, tasked with reviewing the scope of the drug problem in the United States. The Committee issued its final report, Traffic in Narcotic Drugs, in June of 1919. The product of a year’s worth of work by a committee which included reputable figures in the drug field, the report covered many aspects of the drug problem—but no part of the report drew more attention than the conclusion that the nation’s addict population numbered one million. To understand how that figure was obtained, we need to briefly review some very poor statistical analysis. And that’s part of the story. But the bigger story is that “one million addicts” took on a life of its own, a mythical number that long outlived the federal government’s own interest in its promulgation.

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The Forgotten Drug War: Christobal Silvas Sierra (Los Angeles, 1929)

“The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”—Walt Whitman, 1875

 

As 1929’s Fourth of July celebrations wound down in Los Angeles, a teenager named Christobal Silvas Sierra—Christo, to his friends—law dying. No one saw him die in the darkness. But for an unusual sequence of events, we would not know how he had died. Frankly, we would not even remember that he had lived and died at all. But we do know how he died. And we have the power to remember him and many others like him. We should. And then we should attend to making some sense of it all in the larger history of America’s century-long drug war.Read More »

Rated “SA”? Jack Valenti and the Skirmish Over Movie Ratings in the Reagan Era

What is inspiring the relaxation of social mores regarding marijuana use? Today, theories abound. Perhaps anti-marijuana laws are too expensive to enforce. Or: a growing number of Americans have tried marijuana, and consequently, come to view its health effects as relatively benign. According to Nancy Reagan’s supporters in the mid-1980s, one driving force for pot permissiveness could be easily pinpointed: Cheech and Chong.

Reagan’s anti-drug campaign is well documented. Her campaign stops, speeches, and talking points are spread across more than three series in the Reagan Presidential Library (which was where I got the idea for this post). Likewise, many authors have covered the political debates about depictions of sex and violence in the 1980s, noting that media moguls almost always managed to outmaneuver their critics. Today’s post describes a forgotten episode in this moral epic: in 1985, Reagan’s anti-drug allies urged the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to revise its ratings system and return the silver screen to its substance-free, pre-Sixties glory.

Cheech and Chong's Next Movie Ad, 1980. Submitted to Congress during 1985 subcommittee hearings (via Wikipedia)
Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie Ad, 1980. Submitted to Congress during 1985 subcommittee hearings (image via Wikipedia)

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The Long, Proud Tradition of the Fourth of July Buzzkill

Celebratory drinking has fueled Fourth of July festivity from its inception in the years following 1776, when double rum-rations for the troops, endless toasts at formal dinners, and makeshift booze-stalls at public gatherings became norms. And it was not long before high-minded patriots began to worry over the excesses of republican revelry. Before the Fourth of July oration itself became well established, there emerged within and alongside it a recognizable (if unnamed) theme in Independence Day rhetoric: the identification of that very day’s public drunkenness with whatever was ailing the republic.

All was not well in this republic.
All was not well in 1837.

Over the years, Independence Day jeremiads have taken numerous forms, from grim warnings about public health and morals, to wry satire of overzealous exceptionalism, to the ferocious indictment of national shortcomings. Many have focused on intoxication as the essential expression of decay, of hypocrisy, even of delusion.

Complaints begin with the sheer recklessness of the traditional program of events. Read More »

David Simon on the War on Drugs and the NSA Revelations

Last week two prominent critics of the War on Drugs independently declared that their years spent witnessing the civil liberties abuses involved in enforcing drug policy left them largely unmoved by the exposure of the National Security Agency’s comprehensive, only secretly and ambiguously legal, telecom monitoring program.

David Simon and John Stossel are the most unlikely of proverbial bedfellows and, when it comes down to their actual positions, they are not really sharing a bed at all. Stossel is a libertarian who has never met a government program he couldn’t mock in the exasperated, contemptuous style he developed on ABC’s 20/20 and now plies for Fox News. He opened his piece in Reason last week with familiar rhetoric about the ways “politicians abuse us.” Simon is a former newspaper reporter and the creator of Homicide, The Corner, and most famously, The Wire. Essentially a voice of the left, in his blog entry Simon made it clear how he feels about “libertarian selfishness,” in which “there’s never an act of communal sacrifice or societal aspiration that rises above the requisite contempt for collective governance and shared responsibility.”

Two different kinds of reporters.
Two different kinds of reporters.

Simon’s post went much deeper than Stossel’s column, which argued mainly that the  dangers of drugs have been exaggerated. Simon blasted through the struggle that some NSA critics have had marrying world-weariness (of course they’ve been spying on us) and anger by diagnosing instead full-blown myopia on the left. The basic legal and practical framework for telecom snooping has been in place for decades, he contends. It was established not in what we knew about the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, but in the wiretaps and home-raids of the war on drugs. Its abuses are not in some imagined future dystopia, but have been in plain sight, affecting real people.

If I sound exasperated with other liberal voices on this issue it’s because their barricades are in the wrong place, facing the wrong way, defending the wrong moral and legal terrain.  Thus far, the sum of liberal argument against the NSA program amounts to a Maginot Line of legal ignorance, borrowed libertarian selfishness and positive proof that those who fear a civil liberties apocalypse and wish to fight against such were decades late to the fields where those battles actually rage.  Shit, they’re still not in the right place.

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Notes from the Field as Massachusetts Does Medical Marijuana

Editor’s note: Today guest blogger and medical anthropologist Kim Sue offers her observations on how changing marijuana laws have slowly begun to impact the world of the opiate-addicted patients she studies–and the wider society’s assumptions about drugs and the reasons people use them.

I have been closely following the campaign for and roll-out of medical marijuana in Massachusetts as I conduct ongoing ethnographic fieldwork on opiate use and incarceration. Given marijuana’s prominent place in the historical, political, and cultural framings of the War on Drugs, it is critical to consider evolving legal frameworks and cultural attitudes toward the drug.

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Last fall, advocates for medical marijuana managed to get it enacted via referendum. Read More »