There is no doubt that Donald Trump is becoming one of history’s most controversial presidents when it comes to addiction. Elected amid the devastating opioid epidemic, he has faced his fair share of critics for his response to the crisis and his failure to act. Now Trump has taken his bold words one step further, by suggesting that drug traffickers get punished with the death penalty.
Speaking at a White House opioid summit last week, the Commander-in-Chief certainly shocked the crowd with his statement. But he offered his own rationale on why people who sell narcotics should face capital punishment.
“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,” President Trump said, referring to drug dealers. “Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty. And, by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do,” Trump continued. “So we’re going to have to be very strong on penalties.”
Many believe that the country Trump was referring to was the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte has declared a political war on drugs. Duterte’s harsh enforcement tactics have led to between 5,000 and 20,000 ordered executions, with no proof that usage has actually decreased (per several news outlets).
Trump echoed Duterte’ sentiment, though, from the research that we’ve seen, his ideas don’t hold much merit. For starters, classifying addiction as a criminal problem vs. a health problem does nothing to deter to root of these dependencies. Opioid cravings, for example, don’t begin with a drug dealer, they begin with a doctor’s prescription and a pharmacy. Sending dealers to the gas chamber seems counterintuitive to that entire argument.
Sanho Tree, program director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, has even more data to combat Trump’s latest proposal. From the research his firm has seen, enforcing harsher sentences on dealers could actually worsen addiction issues in this country.
“The types of people we typically capture when we keep escalating the drug war this way are the people who are dumb enough to get caught,” Tree told Refinery 29. “We’ve had a Darwinian evolution of the drug trade at a spectacular velocity because we keep thinning out the herd. They thrive because we’ve done two things to help them: number one, we’ve picked off their competition for them, thereby opening up that economic space. Number two, by trying to restrict the supply of drugs on the street, the demand remains constant, thereby driving up their prices and profits.”
So we will give President Trump credit for at least addressing the crisis. But we are very concerned that he is approaching it from the entirely wrong direction.