Donald Trump

Trump champions death penalty for drug dealers to tackle lethal US opioid crisis

Like Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, the US leader is now calling for drug dealers to be executed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2018, 1:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2018, 8:03am

US President Donald Trump called again on Monday for the execution of drug dealers, a proposal that so far has gained little support in Congress but substantial criticism from some drug abuse and criminal justice experts.

At an event in Manchester, New Hampshire, Trump unveiled an anti-opioid abuse plan, including his death penalty recommendation and one for tougher sentencing laws for drug dealers.

The White House did not offer examples of when it would be appropriate to seek the death penalty for drug dealers and referred further questions to the Justice Department.

The new plan will also seek to cut opioid prescriptions by a third over the next three years by changing federal health care programmes, White House officials said.

For Trump, the visit to New Hampshire returns him to a state that gave him a key Republican primary election win when he was a political newcomer in 2016. Back then, he promised to tackle the opioid crisis, which is particularly severe in the New England state.

An estimated 2.4 million Americans are addicted to opioids, a class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers as well as heroin. 

Addiction to opioids – primarily prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl – is a growing problem in the United States, especially in rural areas. According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016.

Trump’s move is designed to burnish his tough-on-crime credentials. He pledged to fix the crisis when he took office a year ago. 

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Drug-related murder is already a capital offence in the United States, but no one has ever been executed using those rules.

So far, Trump has struggled to make headway on an epidemic that kills an estimated 115 Americans a day due to overdoses, according to the government-funded National Institutes of Health. 

David Safavian, deputy director for the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said Trump’s plan had some good parts, including focusing on addiction as a way to lower crime rates.

“Like any plan, there are some areas where the details matter,” he said. “For example, identifying those reporting to prison with addiction issues is an important first step.”

It was also important to ensure the Bureau of Prisons had sufficient resources to treat addicted inmates so they could avoid a cycle of abuse and incarceration, he said.

Officials indicated there would be no attempt to change the law to make the death penalty mandatory for trafficking alone, a move that would could well run afoul of Supreme Court rulings on proportional punishment. 

In those rulings, the court suggested that nothing other than murder can be considered a capital offence.

With Republicans at risk of losing control of Congress in legislative elections in November, Trump is keen to rally his base ahead of the polls behind a tough-sounding message.

A series of special elections has seen Republicans struggle to match the intensity of anti-Trump sentiment, with high turnout among Democrats delivering a series of shock victories.

Most polls show Trump’s approval rating hovering around 40 per cent, with supporters and opponents expressing intense feelings either way.   

Around 55 per cent of Americans are in favour of the death penalty for murder, the lowest levels in decades.

Trump has previously mooted the “ultimate” punishment for drug dealers.

“Some countries have a very, very tough penalty – the ultimate penalty,” he said in March. “And, by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do. So we’re going to have to be very strong on penalties.” 

Trump has praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs has led to the extrajudicial killings of alleged traffickers.

Philippines police say they have killed 4,100 drug suspects as part of the campaign, while rights groups claim the real toll is around three times the number. The International Criminal Court is investigating.

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Experts say that the apparent link between low drug use and capital punishment in places like Singapore can be misleading.

Dr Harold Pollack, an urban public health professor at the University of Chicago, said: “I don’t think the death penalty for drug dealers will accomplish very much.”

He said there was little evidence that tougher sentencing reduced the availability of street drugs.

Pollack urged Trump to work with Republican state governors to expand the Medicaid federal health programme so that drug addicts could get more access to health care and counselling.

Iran, they point out, also has the death penalty for drug use but still has one of the highest rates of opiate addiction in the world.

Many Democrats oppose the idea of executing drug dealers, and changing the law would require an act of Congress. 

“We will not incarcerate or execute our way out of the opioid epidemic,” Democratic senator Ed Markey said last week.

“Extreme proposals like using the death penalty only perpetuate a harmful stigma associated with opioid use disorders and divert attention from meaningful conversations and progress on expanding access to treatment, recovery, and other public health initiatives,” he said.

Kevin Ring, president of Families against Mandatory Minimums, which campaigns against sentencing they see as too harsh, said Trump’s plan calling for stiffer sentences or seeking the death penalty against drug dealers, was merely “doubling down on a failed strategy.”