Trump Formally Endorses Death Penalty for Drug Pushers

'Americans will keep dying' under president's plan, one critic says

President Donald Trump answers questions from the media on March 13 before heading to California to view prototypes of his proposed Southern border wall. He said Monday the barrier would “keep the damn drugs out.” (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump answers questions from the media on March 13 before heading to California to view prototypes of his proposed Southern border wall. He said Monday the barrier would “keep the damn drugs out.” (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:41pm

A Southern border wall. Steel and aluminum tariffs for some of the United States’ closest allies. And now, the death penalty for drug traffickers.

President Donald Trump added the latter Monday to his growing list of hardline policy proposals. He delivered a message of getting “tough” in Manchester, New Hampshire, but he acknowledged the American people might not be ready to make some major drug offenses capital crimes.

Critics warn the idea, and others he unveiled Monday aimed at curbing the opioid crisis, would not only fail to adequately address the epidemic but possibly make it even worse.

“We’re pouring a lot of money and a lot of talent into this horrible problem,” the president said, singling out drug traffickers for accountability.

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“These are terrible people, and he have to get tough on these people,” he said. “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we’re wasting our time. And that toughness includes the death penalty.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse concluded that more than 64,000 people in the United States died last year of drug overdoses. Of that amount, around 20,000 were due to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, which are synthetic opioids — the highest amount for each drug category, according to NIDA.

The opioid epidemic has hit New Hampshire especially hard, which Trump acknowledged. But, at times, as often happens, the president veered off script and brought up one of his favorite topics: the 2016 presidential election.

He noted New Hampshire was the first state he visited as a GOP presidential candidate. “It was in this room,” he said with a grin. “This is a good room.” After one standing ovation, he said with an even wider grin: “A lot of voters in this room.”

The Granite State is an early primary state that already has been visited by potential 2020 GOP primary foes John Kasich (Ohio’s governor) and Jeff Flake (a retiring Arizona senator).

And about that room? Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., had a blistering retort to the president, throwing in a little local color about the venue the president spoke at. 

“Enough of our neighbors and family members caught in the cycle of addiction have already died. We cannot jail or kill our way out of this crisis—we need to increase access to evidence-based treatment and recovery services. Serenity Place in Manchester declared bankruptcy just a few months ago because they didn’t have the resources to treat the high number of patients referred through the Safe Station program where President Trump held a photo-op today,” she said in a statement. 

The administration rolled out its three-part plan Sunday evening, which includes seeking tougher penalties for some drug traffickers. Along with the death penalty proposal, the White House wants to lower the amount of drugs at which mandatory minimum sentences could be in play.

Congress would have to pass legislation to make this happen. Administration officials have not described when the death penalty would apply.

Overall, the White House plan is aimed at paring the national demand for opioids, slash the flow of illicit drugs and help more people get treatment. The administration’s goal is to cut by one-third the number of opioid prescriptions that are filled across the country over the next three years.

On Monday, the president endorsed “spending a lot money” on television ads “showing how bad it is.” He also said that is the least expensive thing the government could do.

He also vowed to build his proposed Southern border wall “to keep the damn drugs out.”

The administration is proposing ways to identify packages flowing into the United States that might contain drugs, possibly through screening technologies or specially trained dogs. Those things would cost money, meaning lawmakers likely would have to allocate the funding.

The president appears to be facing an uphill battle in his call for Congress to roll back the so-called IMD exclusion, which prohibits Medicaid from reimbursing residential treatment at certain facilities with more than 16 beds. Though members have expressed interest, that also would come with a new bill, and some lawmakers already are warning about those costs.

Critics say what Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are proposing could fall short of their stated goals.

“What Trump and Sessions have been pushing for would only make the situation worse,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, contending the administration is mostly looking to “rile up Trump’s base.”

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The plan merely amounts to the president trying “to use failed policies in an effort to look tough. And it’s not going to make any difference. In the meantime, Americans will keep dying.”

Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director at Human Rights Watch, told reporters there is “not a shred of evidence” that increasing sentences for drug pushers — including invoking the death penalty — would effectively fight the opioid crisis.

“Increasing penalties will only increase the public health harm. The Trump administration is treating it like a criminal matter and not a public health matter,” Austin-Hillery said on a conference call. “Using the death penalty in this way is simply unacceptable. … It is simply not something that people are comfortable with. We are trying to move to becoming a more humane society.”

Austin-Hillery went so far as to compare Trump to hardline Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who faces a possible International Criminal Court investigation for his part in encouraging extrajudicial killings in his country’s anti-drug efforts. “The choice to ratchet up sentences,” she said, “simply looks like Mr. Trump is taking a page from Mr. Duterte in the Philippines.”

The president’s remark comes as lawmakers are trying to finalize a massive spending measure to avert a government shutdown on Friday night. That omnibus measure is expected to propose $3 billion for opioid-related programs.

Whether major legislation on any issue, including on combating the opioid epidemic, can pass in a midterm election year is a major question. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden has said the full House could vote on an opioid bill late this spring.

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