President Trump and Congress have adopted a novel approach to combating the drug epidemic in America: release large-scale drug dealers from prison. Our friend Sen. Tom Cotton is the leading critic of this counter-intuitive, if not insane, approach.
Yesterday, Sen. Cotton spoke to the National Narcotics Officers’ Associations Coalition about the ongoing fight against the deadliest drug war in our nation’s history. Below is a slightly shortened version of his remarks:
Good morning, it’s an honor to be with the National Narcotics Officers’ Associations Coalition. Thank you to Bob Bushman for that kind introduction.
I’m honored to receive your Member of the Senate award. In truth, though, I ought to be honoring all of you. Without your help, I would not be so well-equipped with the facts and knowledge I need to defend law enforcement in the Senate. Your authority and expertise were invaluable during the debate last year over the FIRST STEP Act. Thanks to your coalition’s work and Bob’s outstanding leadership, we improved the bill a lot before it passed.
My views on that criminal-leniency bill are well-known, and I won’t restate them here. I will take a moment, though, to point out that we just learned of a high-level marijuana trafficker named Noah Landfried who was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 but ended up serving less than eight years thanks to Obama-era leniency changes.
Landfried immediately resumed trafficking after getting out—only this time, instead of trafficking marijuana, he upgraded to fentanyl. Meanwhile, the connections he made inside prison allowed him to coordinate a drug ring of current inmates that jeopardized the safety of correctional officers and inmates alike. U.S. Attorney Scott Brady nicely summed up the situation when he said, “If this type of conduct doesn’t demonstrate the need for tougher drug sentences, I don’t know what does.” Sadly, with every new leniency law our country risks going in the opposite direction.
Let me here at the outset also acknowledge last week’s tragic shooting of four narcotics officers in Houston, Texas. It seems all four will survive, thankfully, but their recovery may take a very long time. This attack is a sobering reminder of the threats law-enforcement officers face every day. . . .
Today our nation is in the middle of the greatest drug war in history. It may not be fashionable to use that phrase in some quarters any more. But make no mistake: This is a war, one that is stacking its victims like cordwood.
More than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, the latest year for which we have data. This is a higher death toll in a single year than Americans suffered in the two-decade-long Vietnam War. . . .
Your field reports illustrate the severity of the threat we face from illegal drugs. Just last week, Border Patrol agents stopped an 18-wheeler driven by a Mexican national at the Port of Nogales. A search of the vehicle revealed 650 pounds of methamphetamine and fentanyl worth $4.6 million. It was the largest fentanyl seizure in American history, enough to kill 57 million Americans.
This was not just a drug-smuggling bust—it was law enforcement saving America from a mass-casualty attack. This trafficking was no “victimless crime,” the big lie that so much of our culture tells us about drugs. This was law enforcement defusing a dirty bomb at our southern border.
But as you know, this is not just a border problem. The drug crisis has spared no state and no community. Within the last two years, similar amounts of fentanyl have been discovered in a Queens apartment and a truck in rural Nebraska. Two more dirty bombs, located in the heartland and the heart of the Big City.
My home state, Arkansas, is fighting a drug war on multiple fronts against methamphetamine, prescription drugs, and heroin. Arkansas has the second-highest rate of opioid prescriptions per capita, after only Ohio. There are enough opioids prescribed in my state for every Arkansan to get 80 pills every year.
It takes a psychological toll to be a narcotics officer in such an environment. An Arkansas agent who is in the room today, retired Jonesboro Police Investigator Wes Baxter, describes standing by the hospital bed of an overdose victim as the doctors packed his overheating body with ice from head to toe. That agent watched the young man’s temperature rise to 116 degrees—before plummeting to room temperature.
Nor is the toll merely psychological. Garry Collins and I are childhood friends and classmates going back to elementary school. Garry was a corporal on the Russellville Police Department. He sustained a serious injury during a stairway struggle with a violent drug offender. As a result, Garry was medically retired after 20 years of honorable service. The media focuses on overdoses, but the drug crisis doesn’t just harm abusers. It takes some of our most valuable officers off the beat—when it does not take their lives. . . .
Pundits and politicians have proposed all kinds of theories to explain this “American carnage,” to borrow a phrase. They speculate that the drug epidemic was caused by economic hardship, or loneliness, or despair.
There is probably some truth to these theories, yet they fail to explain the magnitude of the crisis. Something else is at play.
One additional cause, I would suggest, is the radical political movement for leniency that has emerged over the last several decades. Over that period, we have endured activist campaigns to vilify law enforcement and the criminal justice system—with special contempt for drug enforcement.
It’s easy and fashionable for the wealthy and well connected who live behind walls and have armed guards to say we’re too tough on crime. But tell that to the mom who lost her son to an overdose, or the police officer injured during a drug bust, or the nurse who treats addicts every night in the ER. I’m tough on crime for their sake—for your sake—and I don’t care if the “in crowd” doesn’t like it.
Most of you are old enough to remember the drug epidemic and the crime waves of the 1980s and ‘90s. We can’t forget the hard-learned lessons from those decades, when law enforcement developed tools that ended a 30-year crime spree.
Another cause of this drug crisis, probably the most important cause, is even simpler than wooly-headed thinking about criminal justice: There is more drug abuse in America today because there are more drugs in America today.
This is not a demand problem or a supply problem—it’s both. The rising tide of drugs makes it easier than ever for Americans to get their hands on illicit drugs. So easy, that if you go on Amazon right now, you can have opium-laced poppy products delivered right to your doorstep. A young man from my state, Stephen Hacala Jr., died after consuming such a product. I met with his grieving parents last year, then urged federal law enforcement to crack down on the sale of raw poppy products. Thanks to the Hacala family’s tireless advocacy, the FDA, DEA, and Justice Department have all taken steps to get this poison off the Web.
But drugs are all around us. It is our job—our duty—to cut off this deadly flow of poison and apprehend the criminals who facilitate it. If we do not, many more of our fellow citizens will suffer and die.
Who is responsible for this drug epidemic? First and foremost, we can lay blame on Mexican and Colombian cartels that are sending tons of high-purity, low-cost narcotics.
These cartels smuggle narcotics across our southern border. The sad truth is that most of this poison likely passes within six feet of a uniformed officer—but we have not given those officers the resources they need to detect more than a fraction of the narcotics passing right in front of their noses.
Indeed, the Border Patrol can’t concentrate the resources it has because it is spread out across 2,000 miles of open desert and mountains, fighting illegal immigration without the help of a border wall.
Mexican heroin put the opioid crisis on the map, but it was synthetic opioids like fentanyl that supercharged drug deaths. These new drugs are so potent that they pose a direct threat to anyone who encounters them. Last year, an officer in Ohio suffered an accidental overdose by simply coming into accidental skin contact with it. It took four doses of Narcan to keep him alive.
Some of this fentanyl comes from cartels in Mexico, but the precursors trace back to China, the real source of our fentanyl problem. For years, China has flooded our country with poisonous drugs that are killing Americans by the thousands. I’m hardly exaggerating to say that China is waging an opium war in reverse. It’s time to put a stop to it, and make China pay.
What will it take for us to turn the tide of this new drug war? First we must decide to fight it. That will require a sustained commitment by law enforcement at all levels to disrupt the supply of drugs.
We ought to start at the source, by bringing pressure to bear on any foreign government that is complicit or negligent in poisoning our citizens. We must impose consequences on those nations that refuse to eradicate drug crops, shut down production facilities, and destroy trafficking networks.
Closer to home, we must ensure that law enforcement officers at every level have the resources, intelligence, and respect they deserve.
We can start by hardening our southern border so that cartel traffickers cannot use it as an expressway into America. If we would only build a wall to stop illegal aliens from entering our country, our brave Border Patrol agents could refocus their efforts on stopping drugs from pouring into our country.
We have to keep funding the grant programs that you depend on to do your jobs—and that money needs to go directly to law enforcement, not the pet projects of the leniency lobby.
We also must improve information sharing between jurisdictions so that law enforcement acts in unison to neutralize threats. . .We ought to build an information-sharing system that moves in real time, because that’s how criminals move. If we can track al Qaeda and ISIS around the world in real time, surely we can afford the same treatment for MS-13.
Additionally, we can increase criminal penalties and prosecution of unscrupulous pharmaceutical manufacturers, pill-mill operators, and other drug dealers, so they know their sham business won’t enrich them—it will ruin them.
That’s why I have introduced two bills that would toughen mandatory minimum sentences for fentanyl traffickers and make them ineligible for early release. These traffickers are killers, and killers on a very large scale, so we should treat them like it.
Finally, I have a special bill to commemorate one of your own—a law-enforcement brother who gave his life in the line of duty: Corporal Ronil Singh of California, who was murdered at age 33 during a gun battle with an intoxicated illegal alien.
It’s a tragedy that we have to commemorate fallen officers so often. But it’s essential we do so, to recognize those who stood between us and chaos—and paid the highest possible price for our sake. . . .
All of these measures are necessary, not luxuries. It’s essential for Congress to pass them, if we’re serious about stopping the drug crisis.
Because for every moment that Washington fails to act, the burden will fall where it always does: On countless American families whose lives are shattered by the drug trade. And on the brave agents and officers who put on bulletproof vests every morning instead of suits and ties.
Law enforcement shoulders this burden with heroic resolve, in the face of media scorn and political setbacks. It is your resolve we need most of all to turn the tide in the battle against drugs. Thank you for the fight, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.