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Trump Again Applauds Death Penalty For Drug Offenses

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President Donald Trump again praised the death penalty as an effective method of drug control on Monday, continuing a string of statements he’s made in support of swift, violent punishment for people who sell illegal substances.

“It’s interesting,” Trump told a group of state governors at a White House meeting Monday, “we have Singapore, they have very little drug problem. We have China, they have very little drug problem. States with a very powerful death penalty on drug dealers don’t have a drug problem.”

“I don’t know that our country is ready for that,” the president continued, “but if you look throughout the world, the countries with a powerful death penalty—death penalty—with a fair but quick trial, they have very little if any drug problem.”

Monday’s comments are far from the first time Trump, who says he has never even consumed alcohol, has flirted with the idea of executing people who sell drugs. For years he’s praised foreign leaders’ use of harsh punishments for drug offenses, and many believe he would like the U.S. to adopt the same approach.

“It’s not the first time Trump has hinted this country may not be ready for the ‘tough policies’ he has in mind,” Sanho Tree, a drug policy researcher and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Marijuana Moment. “It is clearly the most chilling part of his remarks. He truly believes he can kill people to force others into compliance with his dictates. It’s entirely consistent with his expressed admiration for authoritarian rulers in the Philippines, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and other autocracies.”

In 2018, an Axios article citing five sources reported, that the president often “leaps into a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty.” Inspired by Singapore and other countries that use capital punishment for drug crimes, it said, Trump “would love to have a law to execute all drug dealers.”

A year earlier, a leaked phone transcript showed Trump complimenting Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who at the time was openly calling for extrajudicial killings of people believed to be linked to the drug trade.

“Keep up the good work,” Trump told Duterte on the April 2017 call. “You’re doing an amazing job.”

The International Criminal Court has since opened an inquiry into Duterte’s ongoing campaign of violence, which so far has killed thousands, but Duterte has refused to cooperate. “I will never, never, never answer any question coming from you,” he told the court this past December. “It’s bullshit to me.”

By most accounts, Duterte’s bloody efforts have failed his people miserably. This week Col. Romeo Caramat, the head of drug enforcement for the Philippine National Police, told Reuters that violence has done little to impact the availability of drugs.

“Shock and awe definitely did not work,” he said. “Drug supply is still rampant,” with illegal drugs available “any time, anywhere” in the Philippines.

A recent report from the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance also undermines the tough-on-crime approach. The report, published in December, found that harsh penalties for drug offenses contribute to the availability of cheaper, deadlier drugs.

“When law enforcement cracks down on drug markets, suppliers have an incentive to trade in highly concentrated products, which can be more easily hidden than less potent, bulkier goods,” the report said. “This dynamic may have encouraged the introduction of fentanyl into the illegal opioid market, initiated by high-level actors at the top of the supply chain.”

Trump hasn’t yet clearly called in public for the U.S. to adopt the death penalty for drug offenses, though he’s hinted at a harsher approach, saying at a 2018 White House event that “we’re going to have to be very strong on penalties.”

“We have pushers and we have drug dealers that kill hundreds and hundreds of people and most of them don’t even go to jail,” he said at the time. “If you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty. These people [who sell drugs] can kill 2,000, 3,000 people and nothing happens to them.”

Countries that impose the death penalty on drug offenders, he argued, “have much less of a drug problem than we do. So we’re going to have to be very strong on penalties.”

Within the U.S., federal prosecutions of drug crimes have been rising amid a wave of overdose deaths during the past decade that has put pressure on public officials to respond. In 2019, overall drug-crime prosecutions increased by about 6 percent, according to a report in December by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Drug crimes made up 28 percent of all federal prosecutions that fiscal year, which ended in September.

Federal prosecutions for marijuana, meanwhile, have fallen as more and more states legalize the plant. The number of defendants in district court on cannabis charges fell by 28 percent in 2019, the report said.

But while the focus of most prosecutors and public health officials is on more dangerous drugs, such as opioids and amphetamines, Trump has routinely attacked marijuana while at the same time pledging to support it.

The president has vowed repeatedly to support legislation that would respect state laws legalizing cannabis, for example, but a newly proposed budget released on Monday would end federal protections for state-legal medical marijuana programs and continue to block Washington, D.C., from legalizing cannabis sales.

The proposal would, however, fund FDA “regulation of cannabis and cannabis derivatives”—an approach that could benefit pharmaceutical companies developing cannabis-based medicines.

Separately, in a recently leaked recording of a 2018 conversation, the president can be heard saying that cannabis use causes people to “lose IQ points,” only to add that banking for the cannabis industry is “all working out. That whole thing is working out.”

In 1990, before running for elected office, Trump famously argued that legalizing drugs worked better than prohibition.

“We’re losing badly the war on drugs,” he said at a Miami Herald luncheon. “You have to legalize drugs to win that war.”

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Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

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