Donald Trump will formally call for death penalties for drug dealers on Monday, in an opioids policy rollout that will, however, not include proposals for new legislation.
A top administration official said on Sunday the president’s plan to combat opioid drug addiction nationwide, to be announced in New Hampshire on Monday, calls for the death penalty for drug traffickers where appropriate under current law.
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.
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.
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 offence 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.
He made similar comments at a White House summit on opioids: “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. So we’re going to have to be very strong on penalties.”
Trump also wants Congress to pass legislation reducing the amount of drugs needed to trigger mandatory minimum sentences for traffickers who knowingly distribute certain opioids, said Andrew Bremberg, Trump’s domestic policy director, who briefed reporters on the White House plan.
The president will be joined in New Hampshire by the first lady, Melania Trump, who has shown an interest in the issue, particularly as it pertains to her focus on child welfare.
Trump’s plan concerns law enforcement and interdiction to break the international and domestic flow of drugs into and across the US. It also includes broadening education and awareness and expanding access to treatment and recovery efforts.
Opioids, including prescription opioids, heroin and synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, killed more than 42,000 people in the US in 2016, more than any year on record, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We call it the crisis next door because everyone knows someone,” said Kellyanne Conway, a senior Trump adviser. “This is no longer somebody else’s community, somebody else’s kid, somebody else’s co-worker.”
Trump has declared that fighting the epidemic is a priority but critics say the effort has fallen short. Last October, the president declared the crisis a national public health emergency, short of the national state of emergency sought by a commission he put together. The declaration was extended in January after experts warned that nothing significant had been done.
Other elements of the plan Trump will discuss on Monday call for a public awareness campaign, which Trump announced last October, and increased research and development through public-private partnerships. Bremberg said the administration has a plan to cut the number of filled opioid prescriptions by a third within three years.
Monday’s stop will be Trump’s first visit to New Hampshire as president. He won the state’s 2016 Republican primary but narrowly lost in the general election to Hillary Clinton. Last week, retiring senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a persistent critic, told state Republicans someone needed to stop Trump – and it could be him.