President Trump Speaks to Sheriffs Like an Old School Drug Warrior

Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Many news outlets have reported on President Trump’s recent meeting with county sheriffs, leading with the president’s joke about destroying the career of a Texas state senator with whom he disagrees on immigration policy.

What was less reported was that the remark that led to Mr. Trump’s joke was that state senator’s attempt to undermine civil asset forfeiture, the drug war tactic by police of taking people’s cash and possessions on the suspicion, but not proof, that they were gained through criminal drug activity. Mr. Trump seems incredulous that we might want to ensure someone’s guilty before taking their stuff.

PARTICIPANT:  Mr. President, on asset forfeiture, we got a state senator in Texas who was talking about introducing legislation to require conviction before we can receive their forfeiture.

THE PRESIDENT:  Can you believe that?

PARTICIPANT:  And I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation.

THE PRESIDENT:  Who is the state senator?  Want to give his name?  We’ll destroy his career.  (Laughter.)  Okay, thank you.

Many of my articles are predicting a return to previous drug war law enforcement. Many of my readers disagree with me, telling me that Donald Trump is for “states rights” on marijuana, that he’s “100% for” medical marijuana, that he’s a businessman who won’t impede entrepreneurship, that marijuana is too popular with the people, and that the marijuana industry is too big to attack.

I’m no expert on the presidency. But John J. Hudak of the Brooking Institute is. Last weekend at the Virginia Cannabis Conference, he explained how “you’re insane” if you think the marijuana industry is too big and popular to be a target of Republican wrath:

HUDAK: If public opinion was a determinant of what our policies look like, we would have comprehensive immigration reform [and] universal background checks for guns… That 62 or 63 percent of Americans support legalization means nothing to the president of the United States.

Your industry is small by any metric of American capitalism. You are a speck of dust in a clutter of dirt of American capitalism… The president is planning to repeal the Affordable Care Act. If you think that hospitals, doctors and the pharmaceutical industry are small enough to be shaken down by the president, but the cannabis industry is too big to face the same challenge from the president, once again, you’re insane.

Based on the president’s talk with the sheriffs, I’m more convinced than ever that a drug war reboot is coming soon. In Mr. Trump’s opening remarks to the sheriffs, he mentioned without naming it the expansion of providing Naloxone, the opioid overdose cure, to law enforcement. But then he jumps right to hyping the supposed link between Mexican drugs and American crime.

THE PRESIDENT: I just want to let you know that our job is to help you in law enforcement, and we’re going to help you do your job.  We’re going to expand access to abuse-deterring drugs, which a lot of you have been talking about.  They’re out, and they’re very hard to get.  Stop the opioid epidemic.  We’ve got to do it.  It’s a new thing.  And, honestly, people aren’t talking about it enough.  It’s a new thing, and it’s a new problem for you folks.  It’s probably a vast majority of your crimes — or at least a very big portion of your crimes are caused by drugs.

Of course, Mr. Trump is using “alternative facts” when he claims that “a vast majority” or a “very big portion” of crimes are “caused by drugs”. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “In 2004, 17% of state prisoners and 18% of federal inmates said they committed their current offense to obtain money for drugs.”

Is he referring to the crime of possessing the drugs themselves, as well as actual crimes committed by drug users? Well, that doesn’t represent a very big portion, or a vast majority of all arrests in America, either. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2015, there were 10,797,088 arrests and only 1,488,707 arrests for drug abuse violations.

Maybe he’s adopting the talking points of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, which claims that “Alcohol and drugs are implicated in an estimated 80% of offenses leading to incarceration in the United States…” The only problem for him there is then he has to adopt their position that “Alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes today” and “About 3 million violent crimes occur each year in which victims perceive the offender to have been drinking” and “half of all homicides and assaults are committed when the offender, victim, or both have been drinking.”

The NCADD goes on to say that “Among violent crimes, with the exception of robberies, the offender is far more likely to have been drinking than under the influence of other drugs.” And when it comes to other drugs and crime, “Many illegal drug users commit no other kinds of crimes, and many persons who commit crimes never use illegal drugs.”

Mr. Trump continued to wax rhapsodic about the scourge of drugs:

THE PRESIDENT: We’re going to stop the border.  We’re going to stop — we’re not going to have the drugs pouring from the border like they have been.  We will work with you on supporting your longstanding efforts to strengthen the bonds between the communities and the police, which is very important.  And it’s sort a new phenomenon to a certain extent, and it’s happening more and more.  And some great results out when you can strengthen the bonds.

We’re committed to securing our borders to reduce crime, illegal drugs, human trafficking, especially in border counties.  We have a lot of the border counties represented.

When Mr. Trump is talking about “drugs pouring from the border”, keep in mind that according to US Customs and Border Patrol, in 2009 they seized over 2,000 pounds of heroin, 6,000 pounds of meth, 135,000 pounds of cocaine, and a whopping 4.3 million pounds of cannabis.

THE PRESIDENT: So we’re going to be very tough on crime.  So we’re going to be very tough on the drugs pouring in, and that’s a big part of the crime. … We’re not playing games.  We’re stopping the drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth.

Getting “tough on crime” is how this drug war started in the first place. In 2012, The Atlantic published a piece explaining just how President Richard Nixon turned compassion for the addicted into contempt for the criminal:

THE ATLANTIC: Shifting the conversation away from eradicating the causes of crime and focusing solely on punishing the criminal, the ‘Law and Order’ President was able to do two things: First, Nixon exonerated the white middle class from responsibility for the drug-related violence ravaging the inner cities. Second, he transformed the public image of the drug user into one of a dangerous and anarchic threat to American civilization. Shifting public perception in this way ultimately served to reinforce the ‘necessity’ of Nixon’s drug war. Once addicts were no longer seen as sick victims of a society that systematically excluded them, no one would mind when they were simply locked up. In fact, incarceration was for the nation’s own good.

Some more of the 45th president sounding like the 37th:

THE PRESIDENT:  How much of your crime is caused, do you think, by drugs generally?

SHERIFF MAHONEY:  Eighty percent?

THE PRESIDENT:  Eighty percent.  So without drugs, you would have a whole different ballgame.  

SHERIFF MAHONEY:  I have a jail, over 1,000 beds.  Eighty percent suffer from chronic drug and alcohol addiction.

PARTICIPANT:  Mr. President, I hate to interrupt — it used to take 90 days to take a load of heroin from the border to get it into the (inaudible) mainstream.  Now it’s taking 14 days.

THE PRESIDENT:  Okay, well, we’ll have it take infinity, okay?  (Laughter.)

Mr. Trump also signalled again that the push to end the abuse of civil asset forfeiture is over and we’ll be returning to swiping innocent people’s stuff to enrich police departments:

MR. BOENTE:  I am aware of that, Mr. President.  And we have gotten a great deal of criticism for the asset forfeiture, which, as the sheriff said, frequently was taking narcotics proceeds and other proceeds of crime.  But there has been a lot of pressure on the department to curtail some of that.

THE PRESIDENT:  So what do you do?  So in other words, they have a huge stash of drugs.  So in the old days, you take it.  Now we’re criticized if we take it.  So who gets it?  What happens to it?  Tell them to keep it?

MR. BOENTE:  Well, we have what is called equitable sharing, where we usually share it with the local police departments for whatever portion that they worked on the case.  And it was a very successful program, very popular with the law enforcement community.  

THE PRESIDENT:  And now what happens?

MR. BOENTE:  Well, now we’ve just been given — there’s been a lot of pressure not to forfeit, in some cases.

THE PRESIDENT:  Who would want that pressure, other than, like, bad people, right?  But who would want that pressure?  You would think they’d want this stuff taken away.

SHERIFF AUBREY:  You have to be careful how you speak, I guess.  But a lot of pressure is coming out of — was coming out of Congress.  I don’t know that that will continue now or not.

THE PRESIDENT:  I think less so.  I think Congress is going to get beat up really badly by the voters because they’ve let this happen.  And I think badly.  I think you’ll be back in shape.  So, asset forfeiture, we’re going to go back on, okay?

SHERIFF AUBREY:  Thank you, sir.

THE PRESIDENT:  I mean, how simple can anything be?  You all agree with that, I assume, right?

PARTICIPANT:  Absolutely, yeah.

THE PRESIDENT:  Do you even understand the other side of it?


PARTICIPANT:  You shouldn’t be allowed to profit from the illegal proceeds.  So if you’re going to sell narcotics and sell illegal drugs in our country, you also cannot profit from that.  And so we seize those profits.

THE PRESIDENT:  So do we need any legislation or any executive orders for that, would you say, Dana — to put that back in business?

MR. BOENTE:  I don’t think we need any executive orders.  We just need kind of some encouragement to move in that direction.

THE PRESIDENT:  Okay.  Good.  You’re in charge.  (Laughter.)  I love that answer, because it’s better than signing executive orders and then these people take it and they make it look so terrible — “oh, it’s so terrible.”  I love it.  You’re encouraged.  

PARTICIPANT:  Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT:  Good.  Asset forfeiture.  You’re encouraged.  Okay.  Yes, sir.

If I may paraphrase John J. Hudak, if you think that following the confirmation of Sen. Jeff “Good People Don’t Smoke Marijuana” Sessions as Attorney General that a return to the drug war isn’t happening, you’re insane.

Russ Belville
About Russ Belville 199 Articles
Russ Belville - or "Radical" Russ, as he is known on-air - hosts The Marijuana Agenda, a live news and talk radio program for the cannabis community, weekdays at 3pm Pacific on  The show is based in Portland, Oregon, but "Radical" Russ has traveled over 300,000 air miles in the past five years, bringing his show to report live from hundreds of cannabis conferences, marijuana expos, hemp festivals, and legalization events in over 70 North American cities.