Last year, President Donald Trump got on the phone with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in the midst of the latter’s ongoing campaign to extrajudicially kill thousands of alleged drug dealers and users. “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump gushed to Duterte. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”
On Monday, when Trump called for the execution of drug dealers here in the United States as a measure to deal with the opioid crisis, it appeared his admiration of Duterte had morphed into emulation: “These are terrible people, and we have to get tough on those people, because we can have all the Blue Ribbon committees we want, but if we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we’re wasting our time,” Trump said at an event in New Hampshire. “Just remember that. We’re wasting our time. And that toughness includes the death penalty.”
The specifics of Trump’s plan are currently unclear. The administration had reportedly been pondering making dealing fentanyl—a powerful opioid that has fueled skyrocketing overdose rates—a capital offense in certain cases, but then decided to just seek the death penalty under current law. Under existing federal law, the death penalty is only an option for certain drug-related murders and for major kingpins. Yet in New Hampshire, Trump said “We have to change the laws, and we’re working on that right now. The Department of Justice is working very, very hard on that.” [Update, March 22, 2018, 12: 30 p.m.: On Wednesday, March 21, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a press release that essentially encouraged U.S. attorneys to pursue “capital punishment in appropriate cases,” noting that “Congress has passed several statutes that provide the Department with the ability to seek capital punishment for certain drug-related crimes.”]
Trump may have been referring to the death penalty, but it also possible that he was referencing the White House proposal for Congress to pass legislation that would lower the threshold of fentanyl dealers would need to be carrying to trigger harsh mandatory minimum sentences. Indeed, it’s quite possible that the proposal to execute drug dealers will go nowhere and largely just distract critical attention away from this proposal to lengthen sentences for fentanyl. But even if Trump’s stream-of-consciousness amounts to nothing, it’s illustrative of how he thinks about this problem. Not only has Trump effusively praised Duterte, he has also reportedly expressed a fondness for Singapore’s approach, and in New Hampshire he hinted that the city-state or China might be his model:
I’ve gotten to know the leaders of many countries. And I won’t mention names, but you know the countries I’m talking about. I go around, “How is your drug problem?” “We don’t have much of a drug problem.” “What do you mean you don’t have a drug problem?” “Well, we don’t have.” I say, “How come?” “We have zero tolerance for drug dealers.” I said, “What does that mean?” “That means we have the death penalty for drug dealers. We don’t have a drug problem.”
But one need not even look to the bloodbath Duterte has unleashed in Filipino slums or the spinal cord–snapping gallows employed in Singapore to understand how punitive drug policy actually affects drug use. Extremely punitive approaches to drug dealers have long been pervasive here in the United States. The practice, after years of modest bipartisan reform efforts, is increasingly regaining steam, too. And while it’s not quite to the severity level Trump is outlining, it is already cause for outrage. Many prosecutors, including Democrats, have gone so far as to charge people who supply a fatal dose of opioids with homicide-type crimes, meaning they could end up in prison for far longer than for a normal drug dealing conviction. At least 16 states have recently passed laws to harshen penalties for users and sellers of opioids, according to Vox, and 20 states have drug-homicide statutes on the books, according to a recent report from the Drug Policy Alliance.
I recently wrote about a number of cases in the Philadelphia suburbs, including that of Gwendolyn Prebish, a woman who is a user who says she became hooked on opioids after her boyfriend brutally assaulted her. Prebish is by no one’s account a professional drug dealer. But Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele, a Democrat, didn’t sound that much different than Trump when boasting about moving to lock her up for as long as 40 years for providing a fatal dose of fentanyl to a fellow user. Here’s what he said in a statement released after his office charged Prebish:
You give a drug to someone and they die as a result of the drug, you are on the hook for drug delivery resulting in death. Drug dealers need to know that they are killing people, and they will be held criminally responsible.
The Obama administration made some progress in curbing the federal government’s role in the drug war by commuting the sentences of federal prisoners, tolerating the state-level legalization of recreational marijuana and by directing prosecutors to not seek the harshest sentence allowed in certain cases. The latter measures have been reversed under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. During his tenure so far, Trump has commuted just one sentence, that of a former kosher meatpacking executive convicted of financial crimes, and issued just two pardons, for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a former sailor convicted of retaining photographs of classified areas of a nuclear submarine.
On Monday, Trump declared that “toughness is the thing that” drug dealers “most fear,” and paired his call for the death penalty with a familiar pledge to “build the wall to keep the damn drugs out.” But neither the roughly 650 miles of border wall, nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents, nor a prison, jail, and detention system that incarcerates an estimated 2.3 million have stopped Americans from using drugs. Quite to the contrary: The drug overdose rate surged alongside sky-high border militarization and incarceration. “The punishment approach hasn’t worked and it hasn’t worked for four decades,” says Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at the Sentencing Project. The tragedy and irony at play is that according to many observers, it is prohibition and the drug war itself that have created an incentive structure conducive to the rise of fentanyl. When you’re trying to profit from illegal drug sales and avoid police detection, the best bet is to pack the most potency into the smallest possible quantity.
Trump did also talk about reining in opioid prescriptions and vaguely gesture at boosting access to treatment, which is in woefully short supply, but proposals for concrete funding were nonexistent. Nor was there any specific plan to deal with the high price of naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug that governments are struggling to pay for thanks to pharmaceutical company profiteering. Instead, he effusively complimented the heads of two of those very same profiteering companies for giving some of their product away (sending the shares of Opiant Pharmaceuticals Inc. soaring). And Trump certainly did not mention supervised injection sites—which Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle are moving to open, and which are up and running in Canada—where people can use drugs under professional supervision because of the research-supported idea that it is better that someone who use drugs not die regardless of one’s feelings about the morality of drug use.
Trump’s adoration of foreign authoritarians no doubt guides his thinking on criminal justice and other matters. But his outrageous language also obscures the frightening normalcy of his policies. The reasons that Trump’s proposal to execute drug dealers is politically salient are to be found in our own failed history of using mass policing and incarceration to deal with social problems like drug abuse. As is often the case with Trump, his proposals and their popularity amongst a large minority of Americans reveals more about the United States long-running problems than it does about those of other countries.
Update, March 21, 2018: This article has been updated to reflect new guidance from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.