Although it appeared to perhaps be a flippant if wholly disturbing suggestion from President Trump this week, executing drug dealers as national policy and solution to the United States’ opioid addiction epidemic has not only gained momentum within the administration — which is reportedly actively evaluating the option — but may have legal grounds within the bounds of the Constitution.
“Some countries have a very tough penalty, the ultimate penalty,” the president asserted during a recent opioid summit at the White House, “and they have much less of a drug problem than we do.”
Beyond glowing admiration for the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte’s stiff and brutish approach to drugs and dealers, Trump and top officials have praised Singapore’s duly decisive approach to the issue — both nations liberally impose capital punishment for substances — and, according to the Washington Post citing an unnamed and unverified ‘senior official,’ the latter’s “is more in line with the administration’s goals for drug policy than some other countries.”
Further, the Post’s Friday report continues, “Singaporean representatives have briefed senior White House officials on their country’s drug policies, which include treatment and education, but also the death penalty, and they provided a PowerPoint presentation on that country’s laws.”
Lest death for drug dealing seem far beyond a feasible approach in the U.S., George Washington University School of Law Professor Peter H. Meyers — who emphasized he does not personally agree with the idea — told the Post of the administration’s nascent policy plans,
“It very likely would be constitutional if they want to do it.”
Despite insistence from Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway the president intends to reserve such harsh punitive measures for major traffickers and movers of tainted drugs, an exclusive report from Axios less than one month ago indicates the potential for expansion of capital punishment far beyond the worst offenders.
Trump, according to a source close to the president who spoke to Axios on condition of anonymity, “often jokes about killing drug dealers… He’ll say, ‘You know the Chinese and Filipinos don’t have a drug problem. They just kill them.’”
“But,” Jonathan Swan continues for Axios, “the president doesn’t just joke about it. According to five sources who’ve spoken with Trump about the subject, he often leaps into a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty.”
Further, he “tells confidants a softer approach to drug reform — the kind where you show sympathy to the offenders and give them more lenient sentences — will never work.”
Speaking to Swan, Conway attempted to soften the rigidity, contending, “The president makes a distinction between those that are languishing in prison for low-level drug offenses and the kingpins hauling thousands of lethal doses of fentanyl into communities, that are responsible for many casualties in a single weekend.”
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller — both dramatically cheaper and categorically stronger than other opioids, including heroin — kills tens of thousands through overdose each year in the U.S. Cheap to produce, the synthetic’s several-microgram-lethal potency — or even its presence — isn’t always known by those who ingest it.
Conway’s assurances fentanyl and its unscrupulous disseminators comprise the true impetus for severely ramping up penalties for drug dealers offer little comfort to advocates for sane drug policy that low-level dealers, users, and more obvious targets won’t somehow be swept up in renewed, revamped anti-drug fervor.
Daniel Ciccarone, professor of family and community medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, explained,
“The closer you get to the ground, the closer you get to people who are easy to capture and the more unknown the fentanyl issue is. I don’t believe that expanding the drug penalty further for other trafficking offenses is going to solve the opioid epidemic.”
Drug policy experts criticized the proposal as likely to discourage addicts from seeking help, calling emergency services in an overdose situation, or generally forcing dealers and users into the shadows out of fear of the death penalty being misapplied or unjustly considered — not to mention the glaring omission of the pharmaceutical-industrial complex’s role in the pernicious epidemic.
Currently, U.S. federal law allows capital punishment to be imparted for just four drug-related offenses — only one of which does not involve murder: the trafficking of drugs in large quantities.
But that may indeed soon change.