The video looks more like something out of your nightmares than a message from the local sheriff’s department.
The Facebook video, posted by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, stars Sheriff Peyton Grinnell as he’s backed up by four masked deputies. It’s supposed to be a signal that the sheriff’s office is taking the opioid epidemic very seriously. But it takes this to 11 as the sheriff uses everything he can to scare the hell out of drug dealers — a harsh tone, thunderous music in the background, threats to blow doors off hinges, and even a promise of murder charges.
“To the dealers that are pushing this poison, I have a message for you: We’re coming for you,” Grinnell warns. “Enjoy trying to sleep tonight, wondering if tonight’s the night our SWAT team blows your front door off the hinges.”
He also, oddly, encourages drug dealers to flee: “We are coming for you. Run.”
The sheriff might want to be careful, given that a recent New York Times investigation found these types of raids can often punish innocent civilians or petty drug dealers — getting people needlessly killed. At least 81 civilians and 13 cops were killed from 2010 to 2016 during these types of raids.
But more broadly, the message of this video — beyond the absurdity of its tone — is an odd fit for the current drug crisis. The tactics that the sheriff speaks to — SWAT raids, charging drug dealers with murder if someone overdoses off a drug they sold, locking people up — are the exact kind of approaches police have been deploying for decades. And all the while, drug crises have continued, with the opioid epidemic now killing more people than any other drug crisis in history, including the crack epidemic.
That’s why much of the policy discussion in recent years has focused on public health initiatives: If the “tough on crime” approach couldn’t prevent the opioid epidemic, then perhaps a new tactic — one that gets drug users into treatment instead of prisons — is a better idea. Yet the Lake County sheriff’s video conveys the exact opposite message.
“Tough on crime” doesn’t work
Take one of the ideas Grinnell spouts in his video: “If our agents can show the nexus between you, the pusher of poison, and the person that overdoses and dies, we will charge you with murder.”
This is something that is really happening across the country. As Daniel Denvir wrote for Vice in 2015, prosecutors are starting to bring murder and manslaughter charges against heroin dealers and even users who give the drug to friends and family. The idea is that those who provide heroin to people who overdose and die are culpable for the deaths, because they provided the drug that got someone killed. And by imposing a harsher sentence through a murder charge, the hope is that future drug dealers and friends or family of drug users will be deterred from sharing or selling such substances.
The empirical evidence, however, simply does not support this approach. A 2014 study from Peter Reuter at the University of Maryland and Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago found there’s no good evidence that tougher punishments or harsher supply-elimination efforts do a better job of driving down access to drugs and substance abuse than lighter penalties. So increasing the severity of the punishment doesn’t do much, if anything, to slow the flow of drugs.
In fact, the research suggests that harsher punishments in general don’t do much to prevent crime. As the National Institute of Justice concluded in 2016, “Research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment. … Research has found evidence that prison can exacerbate, not reduce, recidivism. Prisons themselves may be schools for learning to commit crimes.”
In other words, more certainty of punishment can deter crime, while more severity — through longer prison sentences — can actually make crime worse.
This is something that even some former supporters of harsh punishments for drugs now acknowledge. In congressional testimony, Kevin Ring, a former congressional aide who helped enact mandatory minimums and now speaks out against them through the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said, “Most of these guys made stupid mistakes without any idea of what the punishment was — they just didn’t think they were going to get caught. So you can make the severity off the charts — you can do a life sentence for jaywalking — it’s not going to stop it.”
Simply put, the “tough on crime” approach just doesn’t work to deter drug use or criminal behavior.
There’s a desperate need for more access to drug treatment
Still, the fact is that America has an opioid problem. In 2015, there were more than 52,000 drug overdose deaths, and nearly two-thirds of those were linked to opioids like Percocet, Vicodin, heroin, and fentanyl. The total drug overdose deaths were far more than the more than 38,000 who died in car crashes, the more than 36,000 who died due to gun violence, and the more than 43,000 who died due to HIV/AIDS during that epidemic’s peak in 1995.
That the crisis got so bad speaks to the failure of decades of policy: Years of “tough on crime” approaches couldn’t prevent the worst drug crisis in history.
So what can we do about it?
Policymakers have increasingly focused on the public health side. There’s good reason for that: Drug treatment still remains inaccessible for a lot of Americans. According to 2014 federal data, at least 89 percent of people who met the definition for a drug use disorder didn’t get treatment. Patients with drug use disorders also often complain of weeks- or months-long waiting periods for care.
Federal and state officials have pushed for more treatment funding, including medication-assisted treatment like methadone and Suboxone. In 2016, even Congress — not exactly known for its expediency — approved an extra $1 billion in funding over two years for drug treatment in response to the opioid crisis.
But public health advocates argue that more needs to be done to make treatment accessible. That’s why the Trump administration recently launched a commission to study, in part, what places could use more drug treatment facilities and how federal funding could better address the crisis.
The public and experts support this approach. Polls show that most Americans prefer treating drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. And many experts, including the International Narcotics Control Board, have asked for a greater focus on public health policies to curtail demand for drugs.
Even some police departments are warming up to this approach. For example, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the police chief in 2015 announced that his officers will no longer charge heroin users with a crime, even if they have drugs, and instead offer to put them in rehabilitative treatment. Other cities, like Cincinnati, have adopted similar approaches.
But every once in a while, you get different governments and agencies coming out with old “tough on crime” thinking on drugs — from Indiana upping prison sentences for drugs to an Ohio town charging heroin users with “inducing panic” to the video posted by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office in Florida. While it now may seem ridiculous and even funny in its absurdity, it can also signal that a lot of stages of government are out of touch with a much-needed shift in drug policy.