Donald Trump is at it again. He has spent this summer out on the campaign trail, giving red-meat speeches in the run up to a likely 2024 re-election bid.
An important part of those speeches has been his full-throated support for the death penalty. He has repeatedly proposed expanding its use to include drug dealers. Executing them, Trump promises, will cure America’s drug problem.
Trump’s latest embrace of capital punishment for drug dealers is out-of-step with where the country is moving on the death penalty and with worldwide trends in using it for drug offenders. But it is just what his most fervent supporters may want to hear.
The possibility of a Trump return to the White House is alarming in many respects. That he would revive and expand the federal death penalty is just an added reason for worry. It adds impetus to calls for President Biden to try to end that penalty and commute the sentences of the 44 people currently on the federal death row.
In a speech delivered in Las Vegas, Nevada in early July and then again late last month in remarks to the America First Policy Institute, the former president bemoaned this country’s crime problem and offered the death penalty as a surefire way to deal with it.
“To put it simply, we are a nation in decline…. The streets are flowing with the blood of innocent crime victims…. We need to end the crime wave immediately,” he told his Las Vegas listeners.
Death sentences and executions for convicted drug dealers are an important part of his program for doing so.
“The penalties should be very, very severe. If you look at countries throughout the world, the ones that don’t have a drug problem are ones that institute a very quick trial death penalty sentence for drug dealers,” Trump said at the America First Policy Institute. “It sounds horrible, doesn’t it?” Trump asked, “But you know what? That’s the ones that don’t have any problem. It doesn’t take 15 years in court. It goes quickly, and you absolutely—you execute a drug dealer, and you’ll save 500 lives.”
“It’s terrible to say,” he continued, “but you take a look at every country in this world that doesn’t have a problem with drugs, they have a very strong death penalty for people that sell drugs.”
This summer is not the first time Trump has proposed executing drug dealers. He did so in 2018, claiming that leaders in China and Singapore had told him that the death penalty was an effective method for dealing with drug problems.
In his Las Vegas speech he held out China as the model this country should emulate. “China has no drug problem,” he said, because they have “what’s called ‘quick trial,’ after which they are swiftly executed.”
Given his casual attitude toward the truth, it is not surprising that Trump misrepresented China’s drug problem.
While China does use the death penalty for drug offenses, it has by no means found a solution to its drug problem. China’s National Narcotics Control Commission reported that “There were about 2.51 million drug users in the country by the end of 2016, an increase of 6.8 percent year on year.” Chinese police arrested 168,000 suspects for drug offenses in 2016.
In 2020, there were 30 confirmed executions for drug offenses around the world. This represented a substantial decline from the 116 that occurred in 2019. All of the 2020 executions took place in three countries (China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia).
China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are hardly the kind of examples that any nation committed to respecting human rights should want to emulate.
This was made clear in March 2011, when Amnesty International issued a statement condemning China’s plan to execute three Philippine nationals for drug smuggling, calling it a violation of human rights.
Four years later United Nations Human Rights Committee said that drug-related offenses did not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes” to warrant the death penalty.
And, while Trump’s proposal might fit well with China’s, Iran’s, or Saudi Arabia’s approach to crime and punishment, it would be a marked departure from American practices.
At first glance, one might not think so, since the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act does make large-scale drug trafficking a capital offense. According to the Congressional Research Service, “A drug kingpin violation is a capital offense, if it involves twice the gross receipts or twice the controlled substances distributed necessary to trigger the life sentence, or if it involves the use of attempted murder to obstruct an investigation or prosecution of the offense.”
And in March 2020 then Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a memo to all United States Attorneys “strongly” encouraging them to seek the death penalty for people caught “dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs.” He claimed, echoing Trump, that doing so would “aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes our nation.”
Missouri and Florida also have laws on the books that make drug trafficking a capital offense.
But, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, “No one has been executed for such a crime since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976.” Today six of the people on the federal death row killed someone in the course of a drug crime. None were “drug kingpins.”
Moreover, while the Supreme Court has never dealt with a death penalty case for a drug trafficker not involving a homicide, imposing such a penalty would seem to run afoul of existing Supreme Court precedents. Those precedents suggest that capital punishment is unconstitutional when used for non-homicide offenses, though no one can say with any confidence how the current conservative dominated Supreme Court would deal with such a case.
That, combined with Donald Trump’s renewed enthusiasm for using capital punishment to solve America’s drug problem, is just one more reason why President Biden should move to end the federal death penalty and, at least, use his clemency power to spare those on the federal death row.
The President should do all he can to shield them from the cruelty that a second Trump presidency would eagerly inflict.