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Drugs

Trump blames China for ‘outrageous’ fentanyl overdose epidemic and wants death penalty for dealers

‘Poisonous Synthetic Heroin Fentanyl comes pouring into the US Postal System from China. We can, and must, END THIS NOW!’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2018, 8:44am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2018, 8:44am

US President Donald Trump, who this week blamed China for the US fentanyl overdose epidemic, has told Attorney General Jeff Sessions that illegal dealers of the opioid should be sentenced to death, according to three administration officials familiar with the matter.

Sessions met Trump at the White House on Thursday to discuss overhauling prison sentences, hours after Trump again ripped into the attorney general in an interview with Fox News. The meeting was cordial and the two men agreed to delay a push for any criminal justice reforms until after midterm congressional elections, one of the people said.

Several other administration officials were in the meeting, including Kellyanne Conway, who is overseeing the White House’s opioid response, and senior adviser Jared Kushner.

On Monday, Trump pointed the finger at China, saying on Twitter: “It is outrageous that Poisonous Synthetic Heroin Fentanyl comes pouring into the US Postal System from China. We can, and must, END THIS NOW!”

It’s not the first time Trump has mused about sentencing drug dealers to death. Politico reported in March that the proposal would be included in a plan expected from the White House to combat the opioids crisis.

Trump wants the death penalty for cases in which fentanyl dealers caused someone’s death because of drugs they sold, one of the administration officials said.

Under a law signed by President Bill Clinton, people who deal large quantities of drugs or make large amounts of money from the trade can already be sentenced to death. But prosecutors have never sought the penalty out of concern it would be found to be unconstitutional, Politico reported.

Fentanyl is one of the world’s most dangerous and most profitable narcotics, so powerful that it’s been studied as a chemical weapon, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in May. It kills more people than any other opioid, including heroin, because it’s so easy to overdose.

The drug or its analogues killed an estimated 29,000 Americans in 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a supporter of the criminal justice overhaul who met with Kushner Thursday on the issue, said in an interview that the fentanyl death penalty provision would not be added to the criminal justice overhaul, because it would jeopardise passage.

Lee added that if the president wants that provision it would have to be done separately.

Lee said he sees a breakthrough on moving forward with a compromise backed by the president after the midterm elections. A senior administration official said Trump wants to reach a deal on overhaul but hasn’t yet committed to specifics.

“We’re confident we can get the votes,” Lee said.

The revised package drops some key provisions in the Senate Judiciary bill providing retroactivity to prisoners in the system today. In a concession to conservatives, the only provision that would be retroactive in the compromise bill is giving judges discretion to apply lower mandatory minimums for people convicted of crack cocaine crimes before a law co-authored by Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, was enacted.

Other provisions limiting mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes such as drug dealing would only affect future cases, Lee said.

“We still feel like this preserves a careful balance,” Lee said, and thinks it “will get an overwhelming majority of Republicans and an overwhelming majority of Democrats.”

He predicted they could get 70 to 90 votes for the package.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has agreed to do a formal whip count after the midterms, one of the administration officials said.