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In October 2016, Donald Trump addressed a group of supporters in Maine on his plan to end the opioid epidemic in America. During this speech he asserted, “A wall will not only keep out dangerous cartels and criminals, but it will also keep out the drugs and heroin poisoning our youth.”
The wall along the Mexico-U.S. border was one of the earliest and most important campaign promises that President Trump made. It has remained an issue of interest since he took office in January. Yet research has shown that solving the opioid epidemic requires a much more complex, comprehensive approach than building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
The opioid epidemic and border control
The opioid epidemic has affected a vast number of people. In 2015, there were more than 52,000 deaths linked to drug overdoses. Over 30,000 of these deaths were related to opioid misuse. This was the highest number of drug-related deaths recorded in U.S. history.
Spending on border security in the U.S. has also reached a new high. Today, more than 21,000 federal agents guard the borders of the U.S., with a particularly high number of officers along the border with Mexico. An estimated $3.5 billion was spent on border security in 2015. President Trump’s 2018 blueprint budget would greatly increase spending on border security. In fact, the budget would allocate $44.1 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Homeland Security. Included in this budget is $2.6 billion to plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border, as directed by the President’s executive order. According to the Trump administration, this investment, “Will work to strengthen border security helping stem the flow of people and drugs illegally crossing the U.S. borders.”
Why won’t the wall work?
Critics of Trump have been quick to point out that the wall will not stop drugs from entering the country. Most of the drugs that enter the U.S. from Mexico arrive in cars through legal points of entry at border security checkpoints. In 2004, there was an average of 660,000 passenger crossings per day across 35 points of entry on the 1,952-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico. The large number of passenger vehicles moving between the two countries each day makes it nearly impossible to stop the flow of drugs.
But stopping cars with a border won’t prevent drug trafficking either. In previous years, drug traffickers have used tunnels, drones, and even submarines to smuggle drugs. This is what drug enforcement experts call the balloon effect: When officials crack down on one area of drug production, cartels simply shift their business to another area. This was evident in the 1990’s when governments cracked down on cocaine production in Peru and Bolivia and the cartels simply shifted their operations to Colombia.
Where the money should be spent
In recent days, as Trump continues to ramp up the discussion around border security and building a wall, many government officials have pointed out other ways that this money might be better spent to help end the opioid epidemic, including drug treatment and prevention programs. Both supply reduction and demand reduction approaches have been important cornerstones of the strategy used by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (an agency now being threatened by Trump with a 95% budget cut) to curb substance use and addiction.
However, an overemphasis on supply reduction through law enforcement or homeland security efforts such as border security have not proven to be nearly as effective as demand reduction efforts that focus on prevention and treatment. Given finite resources, prioritizing funding of border security, rather than proven prevention and treatment approaches constitutes a missed opportunity to turn the tide of the opioid epidemic. It is also an extraordinary waste of money at the same time that our most vulnerable citizens face devastating cuts to their healthcare.
Averi is a Research Assistant at Center on Addiction