It’s Presidents Day and regardless of how one may view the current occupant of the Oval Office, the Presidency is still among the most powerful, prestigious and revered institutions in the world. The bottom line is that when the President opens their mouth, the entire country and a majority of the world listens, including those affected by drug and alcohol addiction and their families. While the approach to addiction treatment in the US is experiencing constant innovation and refinement amid continuous research and clinical exploration, it has undergone an especially noticeable evolution over the past 30 years, both philosophically and practically. As America observes another Presidents’ Day, and 46 years after President Nixon declared war on drugs, it’s also worth observing what role our past few Chief Executives have had in this evolution.
Ronald Regan (1981-1989) – However Regan’s legacy has continued to evolve, his tenure in office has become synonymous with drug reform largely because of the efforts of First Lady Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign. He is also, however, remembered for the high rates of incarceration that many believe set a toxic precedent that took decades to even reexamine. Many critics of “Just Say No” say the movement paved the way for zero-tolerance policies that led to unnecessary enforcement toward non-violent offenders, an approach that fragmented families and may have perpetuated the problem.
George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) – Shortly after coming into office, President Bush (41) gave a speech from the Oval Office escalating the war on drugs. The speech included a pledge of a billion additional dollars for enforcement resources, during which the newly minted president said: “We need more jails, more prisons, more courts and more prosecutors.” The subsequent years saw high rates of incarceration, particularly among crack cocaine users, who were significantly impacted by a subsequent 100-to-one crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity.
Bill Clinton (1993-2001) – In a high-stakes example of campaigning in poetry and governing in prose, President Clinton advocated for treatment instead of incarceration during his 1992 presidential campaign only to reverse positions after his first few months in the White House. Clinton even rejected a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. He also rejected advice to end the federal ban on funding for syringe access programs. Toward the end of his administration, Clinton went back into campaign mode in an interview with Rolling Stone when he called for a comprehensive reexamination of our drug enforcement policy and the decriminalization of marijuana.
George W. Bush (2001-2009) – The Bush (43) Administration saw a further escalation of domestic enforcement in combination with harder-line approaches to international trafficking. An admitted former cocaine user, President Bush (43) cancelled trade with Bolivia over trafficking issues; called for the eradication of Afghan poppy fields; and asked the Mexican President to overturn drug legalization. He also proposed $23 million more for drug testing in schools; $600 million to help addicts through a three-year voucher program; faith-based programs for addicts: and about $3 billion more for the war on drugs. He was also in favor of military aid to Colombia to help them fight their drug problem; stronger penalties for first-time cocaine possession and overall tougher laws combined with increased education programs.
Barack Obama (2009-2017) – While President Obama acknowledged that addiction was a disease, rather than a moral failing, reform was hard and incremental under his administration. He commuted the sentences of an unprecedented 1,715 inmates, most of whom were non-violent drug offenders. President Obama has admitted to casual drug use in his past and advocated for a number of significant reforms, including reducing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, ending the ban on federal funding for syringe access programs, and supporting state medical marijuana laws.
Donald Trump (2017-Present) – It is unclear as to where the Trump White House will take drug treatment reform; however, he made some notable and interesting comments on the campaign trail, including a call for increased mandatory minimum sentences as well as medication-assisted treatment programs. A rollback of the ACA can lead to the elimination of Medicaid expansions that have increased treatment access for thousands of vulnerable Americans.
Recovery Unplugged reminds Americans everywhere to get engaged with the issues that impact life, community and progress in the United States and we wish everyone a happy Presidents Day.