Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department's National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, in Bethesda, Md., on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. (Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press)

Sessions’ plan to make street drugs less potent and more expensive is deeply flawed

Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a lengthy speech on drug policy today at a conference for DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), the anti-drug program that was big in the 80s and 90s.

While much of the speech was Sessions’ standard law-and-order messaging, one line, about the role of the Justice Department in decreasing illicit drug use, really stood out:

“Now, law enforcement is prevention. And at the Department of Justice, we are working keep drugs out of our country to reduce availability, to drive up its price, and to reduce its purity and addictiveness.”

This is a standard supply-side anti-drug mantra: make drugs illegal, drive up their price, make them harder to manufacture and harder to get.

Let’s just check in on how that’s going.

According to federal data, the inflation-adjusted price per pure gram of heroin fell nearly tenfold from 1980 to 2012. The steepest declines happened in the late 80s and early 90s — the “tough on crime” era that Sessions yearns so strongly for in his speeches.

The data shows that the prices of other drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamines, fell similarly during this period.

You see a similar, though less-pronounced trend when examining illicit drug purity.

The average purity of street-level heroin seizures rose from 10 percent in 1981 to 31 percent in 2012, a threefold increase. Again, most of that increase in purity happened during the tough-on-crime era of the 80s and 90s.

In fact, heroin purity showed a steady decline throughout most of the 2000s, right when policymakers were starting to abandon the harsh rhetoric for more treatment-based options.

By Sessions’ goalposts of raising price and reducing purity, the Justice Department has been failing miserably at its job for much of the past 30 years.

Now granted, giving Sessions the benefit of the doubt perhaps he’s aware of these trends and wants to reverse them going forward. But his constant invocation of the harsh drug rhetoric of yore suggests that’ll be an uphill battle.

Numbers like these are why a number of reform groups, including the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance, say an enforcement-centric approach to drug policy, like the one Sessions advocates for, is incapable of dealing with an increasingly deadly national opiate epidemic. They’d rather decriminalize personal drug use to get drug users out of prisons and into the treatment they need.

Many advocates point to Portugal, which decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001 and saw drops in rates of illicit drug use and drug overdose as a result, as a model for the U.S.

But with Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department, such policy is further away than ever. “It is not enough that dangerous drugs are illegal,” Sessions said before the DARE conference today. “We have to create a cultural climate that is hostile to drug abuse.”