Death Penalty Unlikely To Prove Effective In Opioid Fight

Experts say that law enforcement has an important role to play in the effort to curb the opioid epidemic, but the death penalty will not be useful to reduce overdoses and drug abuse.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and first lady Melania Trump listen as President Trump speaks at Manchester Community College in Manchester, N.H. on March 19.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Erin Durkin
Add to Briefcase
Erin Durkin
March 25, 2018, 8 p.m.

President Trump’s plan to employ the death penalty for drug traffickers in the fight against the opioid crisis will likely turn out to be an “ineffective” and “harsh” tool for the job, according to many public-health experts and advocates.

In New Hampshire last week, Trump outlined his plan to combat the epidemic that killed 42,000 people in 2016. As part of his strategy, he promoted the use of the death penalty for large drug traffickers.

“Now, maybe our country is not ready for that,” said Trump. “It’s possible—it’s possible that our country is not ready for that. And I can understand it, maybe. Although, personally, I can’t understand that. … But I think unless you do that, unless you have really, really powerful penalties, led by the death penalty for the really bad pushers and abusers, we are going to get nowhere.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo days later to U.S. Attorneys saying that drug traffickers, transnational criminal organizations, and street gangs have contributed to the crisis.

“To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal,” he wrote, adding this should include the pursuit of capital punishment. He said that the death penalty can apply to certain racketeering activities, a firearm-related death during a drug-trafficking crime, a murder to further a criminal enterprise, and someone dealing in extremely large amounts of drugs.

Republican lawmakers are also seeking to increase penalties for people who traffic fentanyl. “I’m going to try to establish [that] fentanyl is in a class by itself,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham at a press conference Thursday. “That those who trade in this should be subject to the felony-murder doctrine. That if you’re selling fentanyl, because it is so lethal in small amounts that if anybody dies based on the product you’ve created, the felony-murder doctrine would take over, which would put the death penalty in play for fentanyl drug traffickers, and that really will change the game.”

But experts have largely panned the idea as being ineffective, and at times a cruel answer, to a public-health crisis. “I’m concerned though if we lead with the punitive approach, that will keep people from calling 911, and it might cost lives, and that’s all part of the stigma,” said Regina LaBelle, former chief of staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy under the Obama administration.

The Addiction Policy Forum said it is supportive of many of the president’s initiatives to combat the opioid health crisis, but that leaning on the death penalty is a mistake. “[W]e urge the administration to reexamine the death-penalty proposal included in the plan,” said group president and CEO Jessica Hulsey Nickel in a statement to National Journal. “We’ve learned from decades of a failed experiment to criminalize addiction that harsh sentences and penalties rarely apply to the Pablo Escobars, but instead hit our own children and neighbors who are struggling with a disease with prison sentences—or now potentially the death penalty—instead of drug treatment.”

U.S. law already allows the government to execute drug kingpins, but it has never been used, according to a report by Politico.

While focusing on the death penalty may be a “step backward,” law enforcement does have a part in the effort to curb opioid abuse, said Andrew Kolodny, codirector of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University.

“There is a role for law enforcement, because it’s easier to get people into treatment if it becomes harder for them to continue using,” he said. “We do want to do everything we can to keep heroin out and to keep fentanyl out, and I think interdiction efforts are important.”

“You want the black-market price to be high and you want it to be difficult to access on the black market while at the same time making treatment much easier to access if the black-market price is high or is hard to get, and treatment is free and easy to get, many more people who are opioid-addicted would go for treatment,” Kolodny added.

Recent efforts to get naloxone—a drug that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose—into the hands of law enforcement officials has enhanced police-community relations, said LaBelle. She pointed to naloxone as a public-health approach that police have taken to the opioid challenge, rather than a punitive one. Part of Trump’s plan also includes ensuring first responders are supplied with naloxone.

But a step towards harsher punishments is not likely to make a substantial impact in curbing the epidemic, experts widely agreed.

“As the opioid crisis destroys even more lives, we must reject any policy that doubles down on the failed strategies that created this problem in the first place,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, in a statement. “I condemn lengthy prison sentences and the death penalty for drug traffickers because there’s no evidence they reduce addiction or overdose deaths. On the other hand, public-health strategies, such as syringe-exchange programs and safe-consumption sites, are proven alternatives backed by years of success.”

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