An opioid overdose crisis that killed nearly 64,000 people in 2016 has proved more deadly than the AIDS epidemic at its peak and has played a significant role in reducing life expectancy in the United States for the second straight year. As morgues overflow with bodies and children pour into the foster care system, states are scrambling to stop the hemorrhaging via high tech solutions, ramped up addiction services and lawsuits targeting drug makers.
But President Donald Trump has recently floated a different approach, inspired by some Asian countries: death sentences for drug dealers. During a rally in Pennsylvania on Saturday (March 10), Trump said that drug dealers might deserve the death penalty. It’s the second time he has voiced the idea in two weeks.
Trump’s announcement comes as the White House eyes a policy change that would allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers. The Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Justice are researching a proposal that would make trafficking large amounts of the synthetic opioid fentanyl—responsible for two thirds of opioid overdose fatalities in 2016—a capital crime, according to The Washington Post.
Officials from Singapore, according to The Post, have recently briefed the White House on their country’s drug policies, which include mandatory death penalties for those convicted of drug trafficking. Current U.S. federal laws only permit capital punishment in cases where murder is committed during the act of drug trafficking or when drug trafficking results in the murder of a law enforcement officer.
Trump has often praised the leaders of some Asian countries for their zero tolerance approach to drug dealers. On Saturday, Trump said he had questioned leaders during his trip to Asia last year. "When I was in China and other places, by the way, I said, ‘Mr. President, do you have a drug problem?’ ‘No, no, no, we do not,’" Trump said, attributing their success to capital punishment.
Over in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has overseen a brutal crackdown on drug dealers and users. Extrajudicial police killings have claimed more than 7,000 lives since Duterte took power in 2016 and launched his war on drugs. In February, the International Criminal Court announced a preliminary inquiry into allegations of crimes against humanity committed during Duterte’s war on drugs.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump from praising Duterte for his drug policy. Last May, he shouted out Duterte for his crackdown during a telephone call, according to a transcript obtained by The Post.
"I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem," said Trump, according to the transcript. "Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I wanted to tell you that."
Trump’s hardline stance on drugs comes as Attorney General Jeff Session has re-escalated the harsh penalties of the nation’s previous drug war, which the Obama administration had begun to scale back. In May, Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible sentences against crime suspects, including mandatory minimum sentences.
The Trump administration stance also comes as public health and law enforcement officials increasingly call for treatment solutions for the drug crisis, not more incarceration. Studies show that the death penalty does not deter crime. A 2015 study from the American Civil Liberties Union showed that homicide rates for police officers are lowest in states without the death penalty. The study also revealed that police chiefs across the country ranked the death penalty among the least effective ways to reduce violent crime.
A study published last week mirrors those findings. Harsher prison sentences do not result in less drug use or fewer overdoses, and has spawned enormous costs for taxpayers, according to research from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
"Instead," the study concludes, "more imprisonment for drug offenders has meant limited funds are siphoned away from programs, practices and policies that have been proved to reduce drug use and crime."