President Donald Trump misleadingly cited a 23 percent decline in federal drug prosecutions between 2011 and 2016 to claim that the Obama administration ignored the opioid crisis.
“So they looked at this scourge and they let it go by, and we’re not letting it go by,” Trump said.
But Trump has not reversed that trend. The number of federal drug prosecutions in the first five months of the Trump administration has continued to decline.
Also, the data cited by Trump don’t specify whether opioid prosecutions fell under the Obama administration. The 23 percent decline is for all drug-related prosecutions — including a steep drop in marijuana-related prosecutions, in part because it was legalized in certain circumstances in two states. Although the data cited by Trump did not provide information on opioid prosecutions, federal sentencing data (as opposed to prosecutions) show the number of people sentenced on heroin charges increased by more than 50 percent between 2011 and 2016.
Trump’s comments came during remarks from Trump National Golf Club prior to a briefing on the opioid crisis. More than 33,000 people died in 2015 of opioid-related overdoses, including illegal opioids, such as heroin, and prescription opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Trump noted that opioid overdose deaths have “nearly quadrupled since 1999” and that it is “a problem the likes of which we have not seen.”
Trump said his administration would employ “strong law enforcement,” and he suggested his predecessor in the Oval Office had not.
Trump, Aug. 8: Meanwhile, 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.
Trump’s press office did not respond to our request for support for the claim, but it appears the president was referring to a March 28 report from the Pew Research Center, “Federal criminal prosecutions fall to lowest level in nearly two decades.” According to the report, “The Justice Department filed drug charges against 24,638 defendants in 2016, down 23 percent from 2011.”
But Trump’s comments suggest, in context, that opioid drug prosecutions are down, and the Pew report does not say that.
Rather, Pew notes that the decline is due to changing priorities within the Justice Department, which include more emphasis over the years on immigration offenses. In addition, the report notes, after two states legalized the recreational use of marijuana, the department announced in 2013 “new charging priorities for offenses involving the drug, which remains illegal under federal law.” As a result, “federal marijuana prosecutions fell to 5,158 in 2016, down 39 percent from five years earlier.”
So did opioid prosecutions fall as overall drug prosecutions fell between 2011 and 2016? The statistics are unclear on that question.
Data from the federal court system only list overall drug offenses and delineate only between those involving marijuana versus “all other drugs.” That “other” category includes opioids, such as heroin, but it also includes cocaine and methamphetamines. Although prosecutions for “all other drugs” were also down by nearly 18 percent between 2011 and 2016, John Gramlich, author of the Pew Research Center report, said the data do not tell us specifically whether opioid-related prosecutions were up or down.
However, data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission — which include the number of individuals sentenced for various drug crimes as opposed to those merely prosecuted — suggest Trump’s finger-pointing is off-base.
While the sentencing data do not break out trends for all opioids, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl, they do show sentencing trends for drug crimes involving the highly addictive and deadly opioid heroin.
According to the Sentencing Commission, the number of people convicted for heroin offenses increased from 1,809 in 2011 to 2,830 in 2016. That’s a 56 percent increase. Meanwhile, those sentenced federally for marijuana offenses dipped 49 percent, from 6,961 to 3,534; for powder cocaine offenses the number dropped by 36 percent, from 6,037 to 3,891; and for crack cocaine, it fell by 64 percent, from 4,361 to 1,582.
In 2016, 6.7 percent of those sentenced for drug offenses involved an “other” drugs category that includes opioids such as oxycodone/oxycontin, hydrocodone and fentanyl. One-page “Quick Facts” reports show that the number of oxycodone trafficking offenders rose from 218 in 2008 to 1,013 in 2013, before falling down again in 2016 to 547. But officials at the Sentencing Commission said similar breakouts for other opioids are not available.
One can argue that the Obama administration didn’t do enough through law enforcement to address the growing opioid epidemic, but the publicly available data suggest a growing emphasis on heroin offenses, as well as for oxycodone trafficking (until 2016).
As for Trump’s claim that his administration is “going to be bringing … up” the number of drug prosecutions, that has not been the case so far, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
According to TRAC’s case-by-case analysis of U.S. district court records, there were only 8,814 drug offenders federally prosecuted between February and June, down from 9,687 federal criminal cases prosecuted during the same period in 2016.
TRAC, July 27: Despite widespread concern about an epidemic of opioid abuse, and announcements by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others of stepped up efforts by the Trump administration to address it, federal criminal prosecutions for drug offenses have dropped to historic lows.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether Trump’s vow to step up federal criminal enforcement for opioid offenses comes to pass. But the TRAC data show that hasn’t happened yet.