During a visit to New Hampshire today (March 19), President Donald Trump unveiled his plan to tackle the nation’s opioid crisis. It includes instituting the death penalty for drug dealers and reducing the amount of drugs needed to trigger mandatory minimum sentences for traffickers—proposals that were immediately condemned by drug reform advocates as failed policies of that past that have unfairly targeted communities of color, bloated the nation’s prison system and done nothing to reduce drug use.
Speaking to a crowd in Manchester, a town hard hit by the opioid crisis, Trump took direct aim at drug dealers.
"These are terrible people," said Trump. "If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time. Just remember that. We’re wasting our time. That toughness includes the death penalty."
Trump, who singled out immigrants for "dangerous drug crimes" and claimed drug dealers kill "thousands" of people, touted the $6 billion recently appropriated by Congress to battle the crisis. Under Trump’s plan, which he failed to release on Monday as of press time, some of that money will go to prevention and education programs, according to White House officials. But law enforcement, including capital punishment, will remain a "key" part of the blueprint.
"Executing people for selling drugs is absolutely ridiculous. Should we execute liquor store owners?" said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, during a conference call with reporters. "Education and treatment, with a mental health focus, are the only things that have ever proven to work at reducing addiction and overdose deaths. I know from experience that most drug dealers are dealing with addiction themselves. Just how many folks are we willing to murder?"
New Hampshire has been hit especially hard by the opioid crisis. Its overdose death rate ranked second in the country, behind West Virginia, in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fueled by fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, opioid-related deaths in New Hampshire, which Trump has called a "drug-infested den," tripled between 2013 and 2016.
Trump floated the idea of capital punishment for drug dealers during a rally in Pennsylvania last week, when he praised certain Asian countries for their zero tolerance approach to drug use.
"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 last week, attributing their success to capital punishment.
Drug reform advocates say Trump’s policy proposal, with its strong focus on law enforcement, will escalate the harms of the drug war. Draconian sentencing laws, they say, have been in place since the early 1970s and have done nothing to reduce drug use, while fueling mass incarceration, especially among communities of color.
Numerous studies have shown that Blacks and Latinxs have been disproportionatley targeted by drug laws and sentencing guidelines, particularly surrounding crack cocaine, although drug use rates among communities of color and Whites are similar.
Instead of targeting drug use via enhanced policing, drug reform advocates call for treating the epidemic as a health issue rooted in science—including medication-assisted treatment and other harm reduction strategies like needle exchange programs and safe injection sites, which have reduced fatal overdoses in Europe for decades and provided entry to other treatment programs.
"Rather than helping people at risk of overdose and their families, Trump is cynically using the overdose crisis to appeal to the worst instincts of his base, and pushing for measures that will only make the crisis worse," Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.