In a speech to supporters in Pennsylvania on Saturday, Donald Trump once more brought up a policy idea he’s picked up from the leaders of the Philippines, China, and Singapore. Echoing a statement he made last week, Trump suggested that the solution to the United States’ worsening opioid crisis is allowing federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug traffickers.
“The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness,” Trump said, according to the Washington Post. “When you catch a drug dealer, you’ve got to put him away for a long time.”
There may be room in federal law to allow for trafficking to be a capital offense, George Washington University School of Law’s Peter H. Meyers told the Post. Current law already applies the death penalty to some types of drug-related murder. But aside from the many legal hurdles of executing criminals, not to mention the high cost of trials and appeals, or even the moral dilemma of capital punishment, most experts agree that this policy wouldn’t alleviate the country’s drug use problems in any way.
Instead, this kind of policy may actually give drug dealers a boost.
“It enables the drug traffickers to charge a higher-risk premium,” Sanho Tree, program director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, tells Refinery29. “This is what makes relatively worthless agricultural and chemical commodities that are minimally processed worth more than their weight in gold.”
In other words, because they risk long sentences or even death, dealers of illegal drugs are able to charge more than, say, your corner pharmacist. Tree points to the price of marijuana, which had been dropping steadily with legalization until Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would let prosecutors go after pot users, even in states where it was allowed.
This kind of harsh penalty would be beneficial for dealers because it helps them weed out the weak competition, Tree explains.
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. We’ve had a Darwinian evolution of the drug trade at a spectacular velocity because we keep thinning out the herd.
“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 says. “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.”
In the decades since the United States first declared a war on drugs, there have been high penalties for dealers and users. Still, most of the higher level traffickers elude capture, while prisons fill with low-level offenders. Opioid use, meanwhile, continues to rise.
“Most people enter this economy because they think they’ll get away with it,” Tree says. “By and large, they do.”
While helping the drug lords, these stricter penalties may also have the effect of harming the very citizens the laws supposedly to want to help.
“People will become afraid and hide,” Daniel Ciccarone, a professor of family and community development at UC San Francisco told the Post.
“They won’t trust the police, and they won’t trust the doctor either.”
In the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs has killed between 5,000 and 20,000 people, there’s no proof that usage has actually decreased.
“The number of drug so-called addicts — originally, they said it was 1.8 million, then President Duterte came up with the number of 3 million, then 4 million,” Tree says. “Now his foreign secretary has said 7 million users. The more people they’ve killed, the number of users keeps going up.”
Instead of the Philippines, there are other countries the U.S. might turn to for direction. Later this month, for example, representatives of the Drug Policy Alliance are visiting Portugal, which has had enormous success with reducing heroin addiction since decriminalizing all drugs in 2001. By instead increasing the availability of treatment and harm reduction services (sterile needles, methadone, etc.), the country has drastically reduced its number of heroin users (from 100,000 to 25,000) and overdose fatalities (from 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012).
Can such a small country’s experiment be applied to the U.S.?
“It’s worth looking at [Portugal],” Tree says. “The numbers are exceedingly good, and they have had more success than the tough drug-war countries in the EU.”
With an estimated 63,000 Americans lost to drug overdoses in 2016, it’s not surprising that politicians want to find a strong and clear solution for this tragic problem. Unfortunately, the real solutions are complex and may even sound counterintuitive. Who’s going to win by saying they will go easy on El Chapo?
But if lawmakers go back to thinking about drug addiction as a health problem, instead of a criminal one, they might finally get somewhere. The organizations dedicated to ending drug addiction emphasize prevention and treatment, making no mention of punitive consequences.
“It doesn’t make sense to punish people if you believe they’re primarily hurting themselves,” Tree says.
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