- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2018

Tired of “talking and doing nothing,” President Trump said Monday the U.S. should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to opioids that includes execution of some drug dealers, vowing it would crush the problem fast.

Speaking in New Hampshire, where during the 2016 campaign he vowed to tackle opioids, Mr. Trump said the federal government is “pouring a lot of money and a lot of talent” into the problem, from expanding access to overdose-reversing naloxone to expanding treatment options.

But Mr. Trump said countries that threaten dealers with the ultimate penalty don’t have a drug problem, so his approach will work, though White House and Justice Department officials said current law only provides for execution in limited, high-level drug cases.

“If we don’t get very tough on these dealers, it’s not going to happen, folks. It’s not going to happen, and I want to win this battle,” he said.

Drug policy experts and advocates say Mr. Trump is reviving “failed policies” that authoritarian strongmen like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte employ.

“These sentences do not reduce or stop drug trafficking, and in fact often they have the opposite effect. Criminalization of drugs has tended to drive drug use underground,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The Justice Department said the death penalty is available for violating “drug kingpin” provisions in the federal code.

Guardrails around those laws suggest the death penalty would only be triggered in extreme cases where the target in part of a “continuing criminal enterprise” that commits a series of drug offenses and involves five or more people. The person must be in a supervisory or management role and derive substantial income or resources from the enterprise.

Even then, the death penalty could only be imposed against a kingpin who trafficked an amount of drugs that is 600 times greater than the amount that triggers a five-year mandatory sentence under federal law, or generates more than $20 million in receipts.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said she didn’t have any statistics on how many convictions have been secured under the kingpin laws.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said no one has ever been sentenced to death under the federal death penalty for a drug-related offense in which no one was murdered.

Some experts said Mr. Trump’s push would be ineffective, anyway, since dealers are driven by profit.

“The reward of big payoffs is immediate, while the potential threat of getting caught and, beyond that, receiving the death penalty, is so remote that it is very unlikely to influence near-term decisions about whether to engage in the crime or not,” said John F. Kelly, a professor of psychiatry in addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Mr. Trump’s remarks had the feel of a campaign rally at times. He revived calls for a wall on the southern U.S. border, to “keep the damn drugs out,” and a crackdown on sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration agents.

The president declared opioid addiction to be a public health emergency last fall, though advocates have been waiting for him to offer a tangible strategy for tackling the crisis.

Congress this week is expected to take a concrete step by appropriating billions of dollars in funding for anti-opioid efforts in 2018, and Mr. Trump has called for an even bigger boost next year.

He also said the Justice Department will consider litigation against opioid manufacturers who downplayed the addictive qualities of their pain pills, akin to lawsuits filed by a number of states. And he said doctors and pharmacist who flout the law will be hunted down.

“We will find you, we will arrest you and we will hold you accountable,” he said.

Pursuing the death penalty is part of a broader strategy the White House outlined Monday to combat the opioid crisis, which killed 42,000 people in 2016 and likely worsened last year.

Mr. Trump said a nationwide campaign to highlight the dangers of drug use is coming, while first lady Melania Trump highlighted her push to help babies who need treatment for withdrawal because their mothers used opioids.

Republican hailed Mr. Trump’s speech as a step forward, while Democrats reacted with guarded optimism, saying the president seems to be getting serious about the epidemic but should put treatment ahead of extra-punitive measures.

“I am all for punishing drug dealers, but I’m not for pushing the death penalty,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, Ohio Democrat. “Right now we have a system that continues to execute innocent people.”

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