Donald Trump called on Monday for some drug dealers to receive the death penalty in a new opioids policy rollout in New Hampshire, a state hard hit by the national crisis.
“We’re wasting our time if we don’t get tough with drug dealers, and that toughness includes the death penalty,” said Trump in typically combative style.
He later added: “The ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty. Maybe our country is not ready for that, it’s possible, it’s possible.” Trump said “personally I can’t understand that” about those opposed to such drastic measures.
Some states already charge drug dealers with murder if customers overdose. In Florida, people who provide cocaine, heroin or the powerful opioid fentanyl to a person who dies from using the drug in question can be charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to either life in prison or death.
Drug-induced homicide laws, which emerged in the 1980s, are being used more frequently because of the opioids crisis, according to a November 2017 report by the Drug Policy Alliance. However, there is no evidence that such laws reduce drug use.
On Monday Trump was effectively sending a message to prosecutors to be harsher on drug dealers, who traffic in street drugs like heroin as well as black market prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, and various versions of the potent narcotic fentanyl. But he did not call specifically for legislation to expand use of the death penalty for federal drug crimes.
The justice department said the federal death penalty is already available for limited drug-related offenses, including violations of the “drug kingpin” provisions of federal law.
The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, attended the event on Monday and sat next to Melania Trump. The DoJ later issued a statement, saying: “At the Department of Justice, we have made ending the drug epidemic a priority. We will continue to aggressively prosecute drug traffickers and we will use federal law to seek the death penalty wherever appropriate.”
Doug Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University, said it was not clear federal death sentences for drug dealers, even for those whose product causes multiple deaths, would be constitutional. Berman said the issue would be litigated extensively and would have to be definitively decided by the supreme court.
New Hampshire has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, a fact Trump acknowledged last August when he said: “We have the drug lords in Mexico that are knocking the hell out of our country. They are sending drugs to Chicago, Los Angeles, and to New York. Up in New Hampshire – I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den – [it] is coming from the southern border.”
The comment caused offense in the state, with the Democratic senator Maggie Hassan responding: “Instead of insulting people in the throes of addiction, [Trump] needs to work across party lines to actually stem the tide of this crisis.”
Though Trump is visiting to lobby for harsher sentencing for opioid-related crimes, New Hampshire is one of many states now pushing criminal justice reform.
On Monday, the state judiciary announced it would review bail policies, after nationwide criticism of courts that serve as de facto debtor’s prisons for people too poor to pay bail.
In 2012, substance use disorders such as opioid dependence cost New Hampshire $284m in criminal justice costs. More than half of jail and prison costs in the state are attributed to drug abuse, according to a report by the advocacy group New Futures. Nationally, 76% of inmates are believed to have substance use disorders, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Trump, who aims to be seen as tough on crime, has repeatedly highlighted his preference for the “ultimate penalty” for drug dealers.
At a Pennsylvania rally this month, Trump told supporters countries like Singapore have fewer issues with drug addiction because they harshly punish dealers. He argued that a person in the US can get the death penalty or life in prison for shooting one person, but a drug dealer who potentially kills thousands can spend little or no time in jail.
“The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness,” Trump said in remarks he echoed on Monday. However, most experts agree that criminal penalties and “toughness” is not a way to solve drug problems. Recall the Nixon and Reagan administration’s War on Drugs, which were utter failures.