A Trump Presidency Will Likely Make the Failed War on Drugs Even Worse. Here’s Why.

In 2016, much headway has been made to counteract some of the harmful lingering effects of the so-called “war on drugs.” Criminal-justice reform has taken on invigorated energy, with more attention being focused on overturning the excessively harsh sentences placed on low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Marijuana continues to become more decriminalized in states across the country, even in recreational form. And President Obama has even commuted the sentences of thousands of inmates, many of whom were convicted simply for being Black or Brown and carrying small amounts of drugs. But what happens to all of this progress when Donald Trump (and, perhaps more terrifyingly, Mike Pence) takes over?


Undoing the ills of the war on drugs is a progressive movement, and there is nothing progressive about Trump’s political platform. In fact, his entire political campaign was built on the idea of going back (“make America great again”). Therefore, activists working to alleviate the systemic tentacles of decades of failed drug policy are justifiably concerned about the nation’s prospects. In a recent report from Rolling Stone, the drug war in Trump’s America is visualized, and the future doesn’t look so great. In fact, it looks very, very dark.

Tessa Stuart explains that much of the foreboding legal battle ahead has less to do with Trump himself, and more to do with the people surrounding him. Two men on the President-Elect’s inauguration committee are notorious anti-marijuana legislators, Sheldon Adelson and Mel Sembler. Even more troubling is Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. “Sessions famously said in the Eighties that he thought the KKK ‘were OK until I found out they smoked pot,” Stuart writes. Ethan Nadelman, who in 2000 founded the Drug Policy Alliance (one of the country’s preeminent organizations working to reform harsh drug policy), says of Sessions “given what a hard-liner and how terrible he has been on so many [issues] – marijuana, certainly, but [also] sentencing reform, forfeiture reform, a whole league of other issues we work on – [Sessions] just looks terrible” as the potential pick for the top legal job in the country.

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An attorney general with such a staunch anti-drug stance would no doubt result in a punishing trickle-down effect. “The nation’s chief law enforcement officer has wide latitude to influence policy through appointments to a range of jobs they help oversee,” Stuart writes before adding “they’re in charge of selecting the head of the DOJ’s criminal division, have a say in who will be made a U.S. attorney and help choose federal judges.” Naturally, such a judicial system would influence and affect the legislative branch of our government, and the implications are dire, given the Republican control of Congress. As Stuart explains, “that majority will probably thwart incremental progress in Congress on legislation like the CARERS Act (which would resolve issues preventing legal marijuana businesses from filing taxes and using the banking system), the Rohrabacher Amendment (which prohibits the Justice Department from spending any money to go after medical marijuana in the states where it is legal), and the McClintock Bill (which would do the same, but for any states that have passed legalization).”

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As far as Sessions goes, there is already a plan to block his nomination. But the prospects are slim, as “he’s just one of several Trump appointees who could cause problems for the drug policy reform movement.” Trump’s cabinet is shaping up to be as White, male, wealthy, and conservative as any in recent history, all things which spell doom for criminal justice and drug policy reform. Stuart writes “the prospect of Tom Price heading the Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, is troubling because he’s voted against virtually every drug policy reform bill out there.” The threat extends well beyond the departments traditionally tasked with handling the country’s drug policies, just like the war on drugs has affected every sector of public life for those caught up in its net. For example, Housing and Urban Development (Ben Carson could very well end up leading the department) has a direct relationship to the drug war. “How they handle the issue of drugs in federally funded housing becomes an issue, so that’s another place where the federal government could either be helpful … or aggressively harmful,” Nadelman argues.

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There are areas of promise, however, and Nadelman says one such bright spot is change on the state level. “Sentencing reform, bail reform, parole reform, decriminalization of marijuana, to some extent civil asset forfeiture reform, how you allocate funding between treatment and prevention versus law enforcement, some big chunk of harm reduction funding, from needle exchange to overdose prevention: a lot of that stuff can continue to move forward and will continue to move forward,” Nadelman says. Also, the legal-marijuana movement will likely prove to be successful, given the industry is “already producing tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of legal tax-paying jobs, the fact that it’s now a legal industry worth many billions of dollars, the fact that it’s already bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue for state governments – all of those are rational reasons for why a Trump administration should have a fairly hands-off approach. But that assumes that they’re willing to let rational considerations trump the old Drug War rhetoric,” Nadelman says.

To learn more about President-Elect Trump’s stance on drugs, visit political resource On the Issues.