death penalty for drug dealers

Death Penalty for Drug Dealers?

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President Trump hasn’t been shy about publicly stating his support for harsh penalties for drug dealers, and the administration is currently studying policy options for implementing the death penalty for drug dealers.[1]

This idea has gotten strong support from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but it’s far from being implemented.[2] The discussion however does raise important questions about the way drug crimes should be handled and what punishments may actually help in reducing the deaths and pain caused by the national opioid crisis.

The Case for Capital Punishment

Drug-related incidents have become a leading cause of death in young people across the country. In 2016 alone, nearly 64,000 people died of opioid use, a figure which has pulled the country’s life expectancy down for the first time since the AIDS epidemic.[3]

Part of the rise of opioid overdoses in recent years is due to the makeup of the drugs commonly sold on the street. It’s become increasingly popular for heroin to be cut or laced with fentanyl, an extremely potent drug that can cause a deadly overdose in small quantities. Because drug dealers are purposely mixing these high-potency drugs, it’s reasonable to hold them at least partially accountable for the sweeping epidemic of drug-related deaths.

Certain drug-related crimes are already punishable by death under federal law:

  • Murder committed during drive-by shootings related to drug activity
  • Murder committed during drug trafficking
  • Death of a law enforcement officer in relation to drug sale

Altogether, 32 countries in the world offer capital punishment for drug-related crimes. The majority of these are in Asia and the Middle East.[4]

According to public statements, President Trump has drawn inspiration from Rodriguo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, whose aggressive stance against drugs has led some to accuse him of promoting vigilantism.[5]

Opponents of the ‘War on Drugs’

America’s longest-running war is the so-called war on drugs. Since the 1970s, increasingly strong legal actions have been prescribed against drug use and sales. Unfortunately, this method has largely failed to prevent drug use and addiction. In fact, it may be making it worse: Illegal drugs have become cheaper and easier to obtain over the last several decades.[6]

Another problem is that the drugs currently at the heart of our nation’s drug epidemic are not illegal substances. Foreign cartels and drug trafficking continue to play a role in modern drug addiction, but the majority of people currently using opioids became addicted while using legally prescribed narcotics. For these people, cracking down on street-level drug dealers would do nothing to prevent addiction.

A look at the current state of drug convictions throughout Southeast Asia gives a glimpse at what stronger drug laws might look like, and it is not a positive outlook. Countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore have implemented very tough punishments for drug crimes, but these regions still struggle with drug use and sales. It seems clear that harsher penalties are not enough to shut down a nation’s drug problem.[7]

A Multi-Faceted Approach to Ending the Nation’s Drug Problem

Tackling the drug problem head-on with legal action has proven time and again to be ineffective. It’s been shown to disproportionately affect socially disadvantaged groups, and these groups would only stand to sustain more harm if the death penalty became more common for drug-related crimes.[8]

That said, the nation’s drug problem is a serious issue that requires intervention in order to save lives and reduce the number of people dependent on drugs. Nations that have implemented harm reduction services rather than harsh litigation have shown promising results.[9]

Based on this, it seems that the answer to the opioid epidemic is focused more on compassion and care for people struggling with addiction. Providing treatment options and improving the mental health circumstances of at-risk individuals who may be tempted to self-medicate with drugs is a powerful step toward eliminating the demand for these substances. This may be a better use of time and resources than harsh punishments for suppliers.



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