“If we catch a drug dealer — death penalty,” President Donald Trump told a crowd this weekend at a campaign rally outside Pittsburgh, generating cheers.
The tough-on-crime plea comes amid a national public health emergency over US drug overdoses, which killed more than 62,000 people in 2016. Driving the epidemic are deaths from illegal drugs, largely heroin, cocaine, and counterfeit pain pills tainted with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, now the leading cause nationwide of fatal overdoses.
Trump said at the rally that although people convicted of homicide can face the death penalty, those who sell fatal drug doses get lighter sentences. The president called for execution, not jail time, for people who traffic in doses of drugs that kill “thousands.”
“That’s why we have a problem,” Trump said.
Legal observers and addiction experts, however, don’t agree. Several told BuzzFeed News that executing drug dealers would be both unworkable and ineffective.
“Expanding the death penalty for fentanyl trafficking won’t solve our nation’s opioid epidemic,” former Office of National Drug Control Policy official Regina LaBelle told BuzzFeed News by email. “Quick fixes won’t change the fact that more than 2 million people have an opioid use disorder, many of whom became addicted through the use of legal, prescribed opioids.”
The biochemistry of opioid drugs creates a demand, regardless of any threat of execution for dealers. Prescription painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl all create a growing physical dependence in users with long-term use: Almost half of the people who take pain pills for a month are still taking them a year later. High doses of opioids supplant the brain’s production of natural opioids, producing euphoria and avoidance of agonizing withdrawal symptoms. In other words: The demand for heroin comes from a user’s need to avoid withdrawal tomorrow, not worries of possible criminal penalties months or years away.
Plus, most drug dealers aren’t selling heroin to thousands of people. Heroin dealers, unlike CEOs with an organizational structure beneath them, typically operate in loose networks. Many low-level dealers are themselves addicted, selling drugs to friends and family to pay for their own daily need to avoid withdrawal, according to Beth Macy, author of the forthcoming book, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America.
“These are just tree trimmers, and waitresses, and high school football players who got injured, and ended up with an opioid use disorder,” Macy told BuzzFeed News.
Legally, the idea of a death penalty also looks like a nonstarter, law professor John Pfaff of Fordham Law School told BuzzFeed News. The US Supreme Court has viewed the death penalty with growing suspicion in the last decade, particularly in a 2008 case in which they voted against the death penalty for a child rapist. It seems unlikely that the court would suddenly reverse the trend for President Trump, Pfaff said. “I would be very surprised if the court would rule against the death penalty for child rape and then allow it for drug dealing.”
Some federal laws on the books already allow for executions of major drug dealers. The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 reserves the death penalty for drug kingpins, for example. Those laws don’t appear to have deterred illegal drug sales, and cartel chiefs such as Colombia’s Pablo Escobar or Mexico’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán operated largely beyond the reach of US laws, more at risk of being executed by their competitors. The reality of drug dealing is far more messy and tangled at the lower level, Pfaff said, leaving the question of who is the true kingpin of a criminal organization harder to argue in court.
In the US, drug dealer prosecutions often rely on confidential informants who are themselves facing charges for drug dealing and are incentivized to make bigger dealers look worse, Macy said. “Many lie to get less time,” she said. “It’s ethically fraught and not transparent at all.”
The president cited other countries using the death penalty for drug trafficking in his speech, to argue for the policy. But China, despite such laws, faces rampant drug trafficking in some provinces, according to the BBC. Even in Singapore, which Trump has privately cited as an inspiration for the execution idea, the government lessened its draconian death penalty laws for aggravated drug trafficking, giving prosecutors the alternative of life imprisonment. A city-state with a population of 5.6 million, Singapore still has a drug problem anyway, described as “growing” last year by Channel NewsAsia.
Overall, the merits of threatening drug dealers with the death penalty are “from a crime-control perspective, likely low to none,” Pfaff said.
Trump’s own presidential panel on the crisis, headed by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, released dozens of recommendations in November, largely focused on limiting opioid prescriptions, increasing the availability of overdose-reversal drugs, and expanding treatment options. It did not call for the death penalty for drug dealers. (Trump mocked blue ribbon commissions in his weekend remarks, for what it’s worth.)
“We cannot execute our way out of the opioid crisis or drug dependency,” Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, told BuzzFeed News. Some states still have life imprisonment laws for possessing three pounds of marijuana, he noted, which has only served to fill prisons with nonviolent drug offenders without deterring crime.
“What we haven't tried to do in this country is to treat drug abuse, addiction, dependence, and the trade that supports it as a health crisis where we generate a massive health care response,” he said. “That's what's been proved to be effective.”
Chris Geidner contributed reporting to this story.