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Trump Seeks Death Penalty For Drug Dealers: Would It Help?

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Sylvia Longmire IHSBy Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security

In a move reminiscent of hard-line dictatorships and Middle Eastern theocracies, President Donald Trump has proposed seeking the death penalty against drug traffickers when it’s appropriate under current law.

According to Reuters, Trump initially raised the issue in early March at a Pennsylvania rally, citing the death toll attributable to drug dealers. While current U.S. law does allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty in very specific situations involving drug trafficking offenses, The White House did not offer any specific examples of when this would be appropriate.

Trump Has Praised The Philippines’ Approach

This approach to combating drug trafficking and abuse isn’t new, but it’s highly controversial. Trump has praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s approach to the drug war in his country, which by some accounts has claimed the lives of 20,000 in the last two years—including more than 12,000 drug users and dealers, according to Human Rights Watch. A Human Rights Watch investigation found that Philippine police and their agents have repeatedly carried out extrajudicial killings of drug suspects, and then falsely claimed self-defense. “You can go to hell, all of you!” Duterte said in a speech, referring to human rights groups, Catholic bishops, and priests who had urged an end to the killings.

Drug Trafficker Executions Around The World

According to a report by The Economist, 32 countries offer capital punishment as an option in drug trafficking cases, although few of those countries actually carry it out, preferring to commute the penalty to life in prison. Still, in April 2015, Indonesia executed eight convicted drug traffickers. Seven of the eight were foreigners: two Australians, a Brazilian and four Nigerians. Only in six countries—China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore—are drug offenders known to be routinely executed, although data for Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and South Sudan is murky. China is thought to execute more drug offenders than any other country. In June 2017, 13 people were sentenced to death in front of 10,000 people for selling drugs in China – before eight were taken away to be executed on the spot.

Fentanyl and the Opioid Crisis

In addition to the application of the death penalty in drug cases, the White House is also asking lawmakers to lower the amount of drug possession that triggers mandatory minimum sentences for certain opioids “to match the new reality of drugs like fentanyl, which are lethal in much, much smaller doses,” per Andrew Bremberg, director of Trump’s Domestic Policy Council. According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, mandatory minimum sentences were being used less often, but continued to result in long sentences for drug offenders. Half of all federal prison inmates are drug offenders, and three quarters of those were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum sentence—most serving ten years or more.

The difference between this approach to combating opioid abuse versus trafficking in drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine is that opioid addiction usually begins with the legal use of prescription drugs. Some users become addicted and develop a tolerance to prescription levels, which leads them to turn to black market offerings like black tar heroin and fentanyl. The White House plan directs the Justice Department to aggressively go after criminally negligent doctors and pharmacies and to take criminal and civil actions against opioid manufacturers that break the law. Laws restricting opioid prescriptions are state-based, which years ago led many addicts to start traveling across state lines to seek out “pill mills,” where cash-based doctors illegally issued these prescriptions.

Death Penalty in US For Drugs Charges (With No Murder Involved) Is Unprecedented

According to the Washington Post, U.S. law allows for the death penalty to be applied in four types of drug-related cases: murder committed during a drug-related drive-by shooting, murder committed with the use of a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime, murder related to drug trafficking, and murder of a law-enforcement officer that relates to drugs. In other words, there is no case where the death penalty can be applied when only drugs are involved and no other related crime. This essentially reduces Trump’s death penalty proposal to hard-line rhetoric intended to imply a huge crackdown on drug trafficking. Moreover, some countries where the death penalty is liberally applied for drug trafficking have very high addiction rates (e.g. Iran).

Where the problems will occur is in the White House request for changes to mandatory minimum sentencing—an approach that was widely used during the crack cocaine epidemic and became widely controversial due to the resulting racial disparities in sentencing. In May 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions went against the Obama administration’s attempts to pull back on harsh sentencing strategies, which had produced a huge growth in prison populations. These initiatives had instructed prosecutors to reserve the toughest charges for high-level traffickers and violent criminals.

Historically, adjusting drug possession and sentencing guidelines has only increased prison populations and done little to improve crime and addiction levels. Trump’s requested changes are also unlikely to have any significant impact to this end.

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