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Death Penalty for Drugs? Trump Makes the Loser’s Choice in Opioid Fight

Published on March 19, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
CORRECTS ID TO VIETNAMESE PRIME MINISTER NGUYEN XUAN PHUC - U.S. President Donald Trump, center, reacts as he does the "ASEAN-way handshake" with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, left, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on stage during the opening ceremony at the ASEAN Summit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. Trump initially did the handshake incorrectly. Trump is on a five-country trip through Asia traveling to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott’s column on cannabis politics and culture.

Late last month, Axios reporter Jonathan Swan revealed that President Trump “often jokes about killing drug dealers.”

A senior administration official told Swan: “He’ll say, ‘You know the Chinese and Filipinos don’t have a drug problem. They just kill them.’”

What was a joke a month ago is now on its way to becoming policy.

Allow me to insert a fact: Instituting the death penalty for drugs does not work. The British government studied the question in 2014 and found no evidence—zero—that harsher penalties reduced drug use. “If anything,” said one minister, “the evidence is to the contrary.”

Lest you dismiss that report as some left-wing softy study, know that its results were co-signed by a Conservative Party leader who has since risen to the office of Prime Minister: Theresa May.

Nevertheless, sources who have recently spoken to Trump told Axios that the president “often leaps into a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty.”

One more bit of fact: That 2014 British government study found that while harsher penalties only made the drug problem worse, a public health-based approach tried in Portugal, which combined drug decriminalization with other policies, actually did work. It showed “reductions in all types of drug use alongside falls in drug-related HIV and AIDS cases,” reported the Guardian.

How a Joke Becomes a Law

The Axios report on Trump was disturbing, in part because this kind of jokey loose talk is exactly how Trump floats new policy ideas. First it’s a joke, then it’s an idea, then it’s policy, and then real people suffer real life-altering consequences. Like, for instance, death.

And now this: What was a joke one month ago is now, apparently, on its way to becoming policy.

Late last week, Politico got wind of a draft policy circulating among senior White House officials:

The Trump administration is finalizing a long-awaited plan that it says will solve the opioid crisis, but it also calls for law enforcement measures—like the death penalty for some drug dealers—that public health advocates and congressional Republicans warn will detract from efforts to reverse the epidemic.

Today, the president is expected to reveal that plan at an event in New Hampshire.

Nearly everyone who has ever considered, dealt with, read about, or come into near proximity to drug policy agrees that seeking the death penalty for drug dealers is stupid, cruel, and dangerous.

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Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, urged the White House to rethink the proposal. “If this administration wants to save lives, it needs to drop its obsession with killing and locking people up,” she said, “and instead focus resources on what works: harm reduction strategies and access to evidence-based treatment and prevention.”

Sessions Wanted Death for Cannabis in ’96

The death penalty policy is being framed in terms of opioid street dealers, not cannabis retailers. (And certainly not the billionaire founder of fentanyl maker Insys Therapeutics, John Kapoor, who’s under federal indictment for racketeering; nor the five Manhattan doctors indicted last week for taking bribes to hook patients on the deadly drug.) But the blowback will assuredly reach the cannabis world.

In fact, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions once actually called for the mandatory execution of people twice convicted of selling marijuana, back in 1996. At the time, while serving as state attorney general, Sessions supported an Alabama legislative proposal that included death penalty provisions for marijuana. When Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked him about it at Sessions’ confirmation hearing in Jan. 2017, Sessions just smiled and shook his head.

“Well, I’m not sure under what circumstances I said that,” he told Leahy.

Sessions was actually beaten to the idea by Newt Gingrich, who proposed executing drug smugglers in 1995. House Speaker Gingrich has since been roundly mocked and condemned for the suggestion, and it has haunted every one of his short-lived runs for higher office.

‘The Ultimate Penalty’ is Trump’s Solution

No statement, of course, is too outrageous for President Trump. Three weeks ago at the White House Opioids Summit, the president remarked that drug dealers “kill hundreds and hundreds of people, and most of them don’t even go to jail. You know, if you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty. These people can kill 2,000, 3,000 people and nothing happens to them.”

What America needs, Trump added, is “strength with respect to the pushers.” Some countries, he said, “have a very, very tough penalty—the ultimate penalty. And, by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do.”

No, actually, they don’t. Countries with “the ultimate penalty,” like the Philippines, have both a drug problem and a mass murder problem. More on that in a minute.

What Actually Works: the Portugal Project

You know who does have much less of a drug problem than we do? Portugal.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, including cannabis, cocaine, and heroin. Drugs were not legalized. Possession was still illegal, but those caught were issued tickets, and brought before panels that could refer them to treatment.

According to a 2009 CATO Institute white paper on the Portuguese experiment, none of the nightmare scenarios touted by preenactment decriminalization opponents — from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for “drug tourists” — has occurred.

Instead, the enactment of that 2001 policy in Portugal resulted in:

  • A decrease in teen drug use
  • A decrease in drug-related deaths
  • A decrease in HIV/AIDS rates among drug consumers
  • An increase in drug treatment enrollment

Sparking Hope at the United Nations

The Portuguese leader who enacted that policy, António Guterres, is now Secretary-General of the United Nations. At a meeting of the UN’s drug policy leaders last week, Guterres all but rejected the UN’s own ways of thinking on drugs. As Leafly’s Sara Brittany Somerset recently reported, the UN International Narcotics Control Board’s 2017 annual report scolded countries like Canada, Uruguay, and the United States for moving forward with cannabis legalization. Just a few days after the release of that report, Guterres stood up before its authors and defended decriminalization.

As Tom Angell reported at Marijuana Moment: “Current efforts have fallen short of the goal to eliminate the illicit drugs market,” said Guterres. “We can promote efforts to stop organized crime while protecting human rights, enabling development and ensuring rights-based treatment and support. I am particularly proud of the results of the reforms I introduced in Portugal.”

Trump, not a big reader of Marijuana Moment, is no doubt unaware of the Portuguese success story.

He is, however, keenly aware of the murder spree set off by Duterte in the Philippines. That, to the American president, represents strength. Make them fear for their lives. Since 2016, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has led a two-year reign of terror—he actually imported the American name, the war on drugs—that has resulted in the mass murder of an estimated 7,000 to 12,000 Filipinos.

In Manila, local police took Duterte’s expressed encouragement and formed extrajudicial killing squads, rounding up suspected drug users—not just dealers—and summarily executing them. Their bodies are often dumped in alleys or streets. You can see the deep trauma this is visiting on Filipinos in Daniel Berehulak’s extraordinary New York Times project, “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals,” which documented 57 Manila drug-squad murders over 35 days in 2016; or in TED Fellow Ed Ou’s chilling documentary The Kill List.

The ‘Strength’ of Duterte

What does Trump think of Duterte’s reign of terror? He loves it.

By all indications, he wishes he had the “strength” of Duterte. When the American president phoned up his Filipino counterpart in April 2017, Trump didn’t express concern over Duterte’s drug war slaughter. No, Trump opened the conversation with a hearty congratulations for a job well done:

“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. 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.”

That quote isn’t conjecture. It’s from the official classified transcript of the call produced by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. That transcript was leaked to The Intercept last year.

This is Truly Trump’s Policy

Eighteen months ago, many legalization advocates speculated about Trump’s true thoughts on the issue. We tried to read the scattered tea leaves of his prior pronouncements. He believed in medical marijuana, he said. He was inclined to let the states handle adult use, but he didn’t like what he was hearing out of Colorado. We hoped for the best.

Republicans and Democrats must stand together against this nonsense policy.

Month after month, we have experienced a steady drip of disappointment. Jeff Sessions continues to spout untruths and nonsense about cannabis. He rescinded the Cole Memo. He continues to pressure Congress to eliminate the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer protections for medical cannabis patients, undermining Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), one of Trump’s most die-hard supporters. Trump could stop or reverse those moves with a phone call. He has chosen not to.

These latest “death penalty” pronouncements complete the replacement of hope with the cold, hard reality of Trumpian politics. The president has no true beliefs or values when it comes to the legalization of cannabis—or any other drug reform policy, for that matter. He is on the side he’s always been on: His own and no one else’s. If the murder of drug dealers makes him appear stronger in the macabre fantasy of his mind, then that is the policy he will choose.

And that leaves legalization advocates—Republicans and Democrats—with no choice but to stand together and oppose this nonsensical and extremely dangerous policy.

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Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott
Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.
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