WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is studying new policy that could allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers, according to people with knowledge of the discussions, a sign that the White House wants to make a strong statement in addressing the opioid crisis.
President Donald Trump last week suggested executing drug dealers as a way to make a dent in opioid addiction. Opioids killed nearly 64,000 people in 2016, and the crisis is straining local health and emergency services.
People familiar with the discussions said that the president’s Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Justice are studying potential policy changes and that a final announcement could come within weeks. The White House has said one approach it might take is to make trafficking large quantities of fentanyl – a powerful synthetic opioid – a capital crime because even small amounts of the drug can be fatal. White House officials also are studying tougher noncapital penalties for large-scale dealers.
Trump said last week that the administration would soon roll out unspecified “strong” policies on opioids. White House officials said Trump has privately expressed interest in Singapore’s policy of executing drug dealers.
“Some countries have a very tough penalty, the ultimate penalty, and they have much less of a drug problem than we do,” Trump said during an appearance at a White House summit on opioids last week.
Trump also has endorsed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s approach to the issue; Duterte’s “drug war” has led to the deaths of thousands of people by extrajudicial police killings. Last year, Trump praised Duterte in a phone call for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” according to the New York Times.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, is leading much of the work on opioids for the White House. 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.
Singapore’s model is more in line with the administration’s goals for drug policy than some other countries, a senior administration official said.
“That is seen as the holistic approach that approximates what this White House is trying to do,” a senior administration official said.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on the policy discussion. A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Federal law currently allows for the death penalty to be applied in four types of drug-related cases, according to the Death Penalty Information Center: 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 the death of a law enforcement officer that relates to drugs.
Peter Meyers, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, said he doesn’t agree with the idea of adding more capital crimes for drug dealers, but he said it could be a legal approach: “It very likely would be constitutional if they want to do it.”
The administration’s directives come as prosecutors nationwide are cracking down on higher-level drug dealers and law enforcement officials are looking at increased penalties for fentanyl trafficking and dealing. But at the same time, public health officials – including those in the Trump administration – and many in law enforcement are emphasizing treatment rather than punitive measures for low-level users and those addicted to drugs.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe penalties for drug offenses. The Department of Justice said last year it will aggressively prosecute traffickers of any fentanyl-related substance.
Some argue executing drug dealers could have a raft of unintended consequences, such as deterring people from calling police when they know someone is overdosing.
While news of capital charges against a drug dealer would spread quickly and possibly be a deterrent, said Daniel Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, it could also drive drug users underground.
“It will keep people from any positive interface with police, any positive interface with public health, any interface with doctors,” he said, noting that it could lead to fewer people receiving treatment for their addictions. “People will become afraid and hide. They won’t trust the police, and they won’t trust the doctor either.”
Ciccarone said there is also concern that the laws could ensnare low-level drug dealers, many of whom do not know that their products contain lethal amounts of opioids and some of whom are battling addiction.
“We’re not talking El Chapo-level people,” he said, referring to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former leader of the Sinaloa cartel who was extradited to the United States last year. U.S. officials had to assure their Mexican counterparts that Guzmán would not face the death penalty as part of extradition negotiations.
“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,” Ciccarone said. “I don’t believe that expanding the drug penalty further for other trafficking offenses is going to solve the opioid epidemic,” she said.
Regina LaBelle, deputy chief of staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama administration, said that current laws that allow for drug dealers to be charged with a capital offense haven’t had a deterrent effect.