Bad Idea of the Month: Executing Drug Dealers

It’s that time of the month again, where we decide on the very worst idea that has been proposed in the past 30 days. We’re only 20 days into March, but I’m nearly 100% positive that I’ve identified the worst proposal of the month: President Trump’s ridiculous plan to execute drug dealers as part of the fight against the US opioid epidemic.

Before I get into why this is such a terrible idea, I want to be clear that I am against the death penalty in all circumstances, including for terrorists and child murderers. I haven’t seen the evidence that capital punishment actually prevents or deters crime, and I personally believe that a life behind bars is a far worse punishment than a quick death. (I plan on delving deeper into the politics and policy of the death penalty on a future episode of The Rationalist podcast.)

Heroin, the most prevalent opioid in the US today.      Image Credit: NY Daily News

Now, why is the specific thought of executing drug dealers a foolish one? Well, there are myriad reasons. First, there is no hard evidence that increasing punishment (of any kind) for drug dealers actually limits or eliminates drug crimes. Many drug dealers are doing that for a living because they have little else in the way of options; putting the death penalty on the table likely won’t change the calculus for these dealers. The current plan calls for drug traffickers to be executed, but the line between traffickers, dealers, and users is extremely thin, with some people being in various categories over a period of time. Many opioid users turn to low-level dealing to support their addictions, and this may now qualify them for harsher punishment. Examples of this abound, and are becoming more commonplace as opioids become harder to get in a legal manner (via prescription), due to the (appropriate) crackdown on ‘pill mills’.

In general, prosecutors who charge drug suspects with murder due to accidental overdoses land on the last person who handled the drugs prior to the overdose death; this is often not the dealer or the trafficker, but instead a friend or a fellow addict. Clearly, increasing punishment for these people will not stem the tide of drugs entering the country or the slow the distribution system once the drugs are here. Many drug dealers aren’t directly or closely linked to the criminal syndicates that largely control the opioid trade here in the US, and punishing them disproportionately won’t do much to stop the criminal syndicate. Using laws such as RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), which explicitly deals with large criminal organizations like cartels and the Mafia, would be far more effective in stopping the overall flow of drugs than would prosecuting low-level offenders. The issue there is the difficulty in finding enough evidence to charge people under RICO; this should not, however, push us to charge others with crimes simply because it is ‘easier’ to do. We should be focusing on breaking up the criminal organizations that traffic drugs, not more harshly punishing local dealers and addicts.

Duterte Victim
A victim of the Philippines’ catastrophic drug war.      Image Credit: CBS News

Finally, my biggest problem with this absurd plan is the excellent international company it would put us in. (My apologies if some of the sarcasm in the prior sentence dripped onto your device, I assure you it will clean up nicely.) There are many countries which use capital punishment for drug crimes, and they are all authoritarian states with little freedom in general. The absolute best case scenario for those who support this plan is the country of Singapore, which executes drug dealers and has an extremely low rate of opioid use; this example is not at all applicable to the US, as Singapore is not only a city-state of just 5.6 million people (the US has over 300 million), its entire history is of strict authoritarian rule. Other more applicable examples of this type of nation include Iran, which despite its executions of dealers has a serious opioid problem, Indonesia (not exactly a bastion of liberal democracy), and most recently the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte has launched a campaign of extrajudicial killings targeting anyone suspected of drug dealing or use. In the past year alone, the Philippines has killed at minimum 4,100 drug suspects (Philippine government estimates) and more likely something closer to 3 times that number. President Trump has actually praised Duterte for his campaign, even as human rights groups across the world have condemned it (including the Pope, an important figure for the heavily Catholic nation). I say that these nations are better examples of how capital punishment for drug dealers would work than Singapore, largely because they are far bigger in territory and population than the tiny city-state (Iran has a population of 80 million, Indonesia has 261 million, and the Philippines has 103 million). We should strive not to be included in any list along with those nations, but instead our leader is pushing for exactly that.

This is not only an execrable idea morally, but policy-wise as well. And it’s absolutely the worst idea of March 2018.

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