Pubdate: Fri, 11 Aug 2017
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2017 The Washington Post Company
Author: Glenn Kessler


"Federal drug prosecutions have gone down in recent years. We're going
to be bringing them up and bringing them up rapidly. At the end of
2016, there were 23 percent fewer than in 2011. So they looked at this
scourge and they let it go by, and we're not letting it go by."

President Trump -- who two days after this briefing said he would
declare the opioid epidemic to be a national emergency -- not so
subtly tried to pin the blame on the Obama administration. "They
looked at this scourge and they let it go by," the president said,
citing statistics that federal drug prosecutions have declined 23
percent since 2011.

But there's a problem: These stats don't tell you much about opioids.

The White House did not respond to a query, but the president appears
to be referring to a March report by the Pew Research Center. That
study showed that federal criminal prosecutions of all types reached a
peak in 2011 and had fallen to the lowest level in two decades. As the
president said, drug charges fell by 23 percent, with 24,638
defendants in fiscal 2016, compared with 32,062 in fiscal year 2011.

To fairly compare what happened under the Obama administration, we'd
have to go back to 2008, President George W. Bush's last year. From
fiscal 2008 to 2016, drug prosecutions dropped 15 percent.

But these numbers are for all drug prosecutions -- and the data does
not break out opioid-related prosecutions. Instead, the data shows
only two categories: marijuana and then all other drugs. Because
marijuana was legalized in some states during President Barack Obama's
term, marijuana prosecutions fell 39 percent from 2011 to 2016.
Without marijuana in the totals, the decline for drug prosecutions
between 2011 and 2016 is 18 percent.

"In 2013, for example, after two states legalized the recreational use
of marijuana, the department announced new charging priorities for
offenses involving the drug, which remains illegal under federal law,"
the Pew report noted. That same year, Pew noted, Attorney General Eric
H. Holder Jr. announced a policy change that prosecutors make sure
each case "serves a substantial federal interest," a reason overall
federal prosecutions may have fallen. Under the "Smart on Crime
Initiative," prosecutors were told to focus finite resources on more
serious drug cases and leave low-level offenders to state prosecutors.
(Many drug cases are handled in state courts, and there is even less
data on that.)

"The data don't specifically break out opioid prosecutions, so there's
no way to know what happened on that front," said John Gramlich, who
wrote the Pew report.

Trump's statistic thus does not really tell you much about Obama's
handling of opioids. Our colleagues at cited data from
the U.S. Sentencing Commission -- which shows how many people were
actually sentenced for drug crimes -- that indicates Trump is falsely
attacking the former president.

Again, there are not good breakdowns for opioids. But there is data
for heroin, which shows the number of people who were sentenced for
federal heroin offenses rose by 56 percent from fiscal 2011 to 2016.
Separately, the number of people convicted of trafficking in oxycodone
rose sharply from 2008 to 2014, before falling in 2015 and 2016. But
there isn't data on other crimes involving oxycodone, hydrocodone or

Obama's handling of the crisis is certainly open to criticism. If
Trump wanted to be specific, he could have cited a Washington Post
investigation that showed the Drug Enforcement Administration, under
pressure from drug companies, softened enforcement of wholesale
companies that distributed pills to the corrupt pharmacies that
illegally sold the drugs for street use.

The jury is still out on whether Trump can improve on Obama's numbers.
In a report released July 27, the Transactional Records Access
Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University said that drug
prosecutions have continued to decline during the first five months of
the Trump administration, so that "fewer drug offenders were federally
prosecuted over the past 12 months than at any time during the last
quarter century."

This is a good example of data being used incorrectly. Federal
prosecutions have gone down since 2011, but that does not indicate
that the Obama administration ignored the opioid epidemic. The number
cited by Trump was the result of a decline in marijuana prosecutions
and a change in policy to focus on bigger, more important cases.
Moreover, there is not enough detail in the data to show whether
opioid prosecutions declined, as Trump suggested.
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MAP posted-by: Matt