Howard Buffett Says Drug Epidemic, Border Issues Have Converged

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(Bloomberg) -- Howard Buffett, son of one of the world’s richest men, has been running the sheriff’s department in his rural Illinois county for the past several months.

It’s led him to a revelation about the relationship between two big challenges for America: border security and a drug epidemic. He’s attempted to detail some of the causes of the problems and how to address them in a book that’s due out Monday.

“There is no way that you can take this problem and put it in a sound bite and be fair,” Buffett said in a phone interview, discussing his book, “Our 50-State Border Crisis.” “One of the biggest reasons I wrote this book was because I think most people in this country have not made the connection between border security” and the tens of thousands of people who died last year of drug overdoses.

While President Donald Trump has supported building a U.S. border wall, and the federal government and some states are clashing over policies, Buffett, 63, is preaching a more nuanced approach. He’s not a politician and said he doesn’t have ties to the Trump administration, but through his foundation and its $360 million in assets as of 2016, Buffett has gotten a close look at the effects of increased drug-related violence in places like Honduras. And within the sheriff’s department in Macon County, Illinois, he’s used philanthropic efforts to offer drug users a way to turn themselves in without fear of prosecution and receive treatment.

‘The Border’

“If we don’t think about the border, and the security of the border, we will have more families that are losing kids and more people” that overdose, he said.

Issues related to immigration have divided the nation, with even the recent decision to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 census spurring lawsuits from some states. In a recent battle over the spending bill, Trump complained that it didn’t address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or include funding for a border wall, although he later signed it into law. About 60 percent of the American public opposes expanding that barrier, with about 72 percent of Republicans in favor, according to a Pew Research Center survey in January.

A border wall wouldn’t fully solve the issues, Buffett said. Changes should involve more flexibility and resources for agencies and law enforcement, he said. The U.S. also needs to address the increasing demand for drugs in its own country and be willing to work with Mexico, he said. In one sense, heightened debate around border security has been good for the nation, he said.

Mexico Relations

“We’re probably in a better position because I think there’s a focus on the border, and there’s a focus on border security,” he said. “But I think we’re in a worse position in terms of dealing with our neighbors. When you stand up and start calling our neighbors names and talking about them in derogatory terms, that’s going to hurt anybody’s relationship. And I can tell you that we don’t solve this problem without a significant partnership with Mexico.”

Politics eventually has to play a role in fixing border security, Buffett said, although he doesn’t view the issue as a purely political one. He also doesn’t fully support one political party’s policies over another’s, criticizing some tactics used by the Trump administration and saying some of former President Barack Obama’s policies also were damaging on the issue. Both Cindy McCain, the wife of Republican Senator John McCain, and Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp praised his book.

“All writers have biases. Howard’s bias is for facts,” Heitkamp said in a foreword to the book. “Howard paints a high-definition picture of the border that he has lived as a ranch owner, a law enforcement officer, a humanitarian, and as a photographer.”

Famous Father

Buffett’s father, Warren Buffett, is the billionaire investor and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., where Howard is a board member. Warren has called immigrants a blessing for the U.S. and noted how they’ve helped bolster the country’s achievements. Howard said his father has been supportive of his efforts especially through his philanthropy and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

A little over half of that foundation’s contributions in 2016 went to international efforts, where the group works in areas such as Central America and South Africa. It continues to be boosted by the donations from Warren Buffett, who gave close to $170 million worth of Berkshire Class B shares in July to the foundation as he doled out gifts to all his children’s charitable work.

Howard Buffett said that all the research that went into his book and his time spent working near the border and as sheriff have affected the way he views his philanthropy. He served as undersheriff in Macon County for three years before taking the top job last year, when the head lawman retired. Buffett is filling in until a new sheriff is elected.

“Now that I’m serving as sheriff and I see the huge impact of the drug addiction in this community and how important law enforcement is as well, I’m spending a lot of money in Macon County that I would never have spent if I wasn’t sheriff,” Buffett said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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