President Trump has sent several recent signals supporting making drug dealing punishable by death. The Washington Post reported on March 9 that both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Domestic Policy Council are looking at legislative proposals to let prosecutors seek the death penalty in federal drug-dealing cases. According to the Post article, the administration plans to issue new criminal law proposals within the next few weeks.
At present, the federal death penalty is available in drug-dealing cases only where specific types of murder also occur (drug-related drive-by shootings, murders tied to drug trafficking, or killing a law enforcement officer working on a drug crime). But the leaked transcript of a May 2017 phone conversation between Trump and Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte showed Trump praising the Philippines chief executive’s “unbelievable job” in fighting illegal drugs. Duterte has presided over police vigilante-style campaigns which have killed thousands of suspected drug traffickers and users (and are being investigated by the International Criminal Court).
Trump has spoken frequently about executing drug dealers as a useful way to combat increasing levels of opioid addiction and its rising death toll (in 2016, opioids were responsible for over 63,000 fatalities). Most recently, to a cheering audience at a March 10 rally for a House of Representatives special election in northwest Pennsylvania, he proclaimed that the “only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness,” adding that death sentences for drug dealers was “a discussion we have to start thinking about.”
Several times the week before that rally, he had also remarked favorably on executing drug dealers to combat crime. Two days before his Pennsylvania remarks, Trump complained at a White House summit on the opioids problem that drug dealers “kill hundreds and hundreds of people and most of them don’t even go to jail.” While an ordinary person convicted of murder can get a life prison term or even a death sentence, he continued, drug dealers “can kill 2,000, 3,000 people and nothing happens to them.”
While neither DOJ nor the White House has commented yet, media reports say the President has been talking to members of Congress about what he sees as the advantages of Singapore’s drug trafficking laws, which include capital punishment as one option, along with drug education and rehabilitation treatment, for convicted drug dealers. Singaporean officials reportedly met with senior Trump Administration officials to brief them on their nation’s laws on drug dealers. Other get-tough-on-illicit-drugs proposals that might be under consideration by the administration include increased penalties, short of capital punishment, for large-scale drug traffickers, and making it a capital offense to deal in fentanyl, a highly dangerous synthetic opioid.
Some legal observers question whether the death penalty for drug dealing would be constitutional; it would likely trigger heated Congressional debate and Supreme Court review. One possibility, if the Trump administration does make that proposal, would be for backers of a criminal sentencing reform proposal, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (or SRCA, S. 1917), which has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee despite DOJ opposition, to attach any new administration proposals on drug dealers to the bill, in an effort to force the administration to accept its provisions as the price for Congressional action on the administration’s new proposals.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to the New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.