President Trump's opioid death penalty proposal is archaic and dangerous

Credit: Diane Lee/ Credit: Diane Lee/
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The opioid crisis has swept the nation quickly in just a few years, and calls for action from the federal government have been met with little to no support.

Until now.

President Donald Trump, a self-certified "stable genius" and the people's President, has come forward with a plan to destroy the opioid epidemic and save the world. Well, at least that is what he thinks it will do. It is comprehensive in scope and legitimately the most sweeping legislation proposed in regard to the issue, but it is deeply flawed. One element of the proposal, in particular, has drawn shock and severe criticism from numerous pundits dealing with the issue directly. That element is Trump's proposition that some drug dealers be put to death.

Yes, the death penalty for drug dealing. If you are thinking, "that seems to be an extreme punishment that could sentence someone to death for simply sharing a drug with a friend," you are not alone. Even Trump recognizes this, but worry not, he assures only the "big pushers, the ones who are really killing people," will face the death penalty.

This notion is alarmingly vague, as are most of Trump's half-baked policy proposals. Implementing this into law, though, would be remarkably difficult and expensive. To even write legislation, Trump would have to clearly define his intentions and answer a number of questions. What defines a "big pusher?" Have they sold opioids twenty-five times? Fifty? One-hundred? Have any of their buyers died from overdose? How many of their buyers must have died for them to face the death penalty?

These questions call to mind the "war on drugs" and its numerous failures. Started by President Nixon in part as an effort to suppress black voters in a tumultuous time — this was confirmed by a Nixon advisor in 1994 — the war on drugs ravaged poor and marginalized communities across the nation. Through mandatory minimum sentencing laws implemented under President Reagan a few decades later, mass incarceration took shape in the United States and disproportionately imprisoned people of color. Look no further than differences in mandatory minimum sentencing differences between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine. Crack was the epidemic of Reagan's era that he used to justify such extreme drug punishments. However, not only was drug use declining at the time that the war on drugs began, but mandatory minimums differed for crack cocaine and powdered cocaine. To be clear, the two substances are essentially the same. The only difference was their prominence: crack was most common in poor marginalized communities while powdered cocaine was mainly found in wealthy white communities. And yet, crack users would spend years in prison for an equivalent amount of the material that powdered cocaine users would spend a few months in jail for if they weren't only asked to simply pay a fine.

So, drug policy to this day is contentious and has a real impact on people of color, particularly in poor communities. The opioid epidemic, then, and Trump's proposed response would likely hit poor marginalized communities the hardest. Look no further for evidence of this than Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has openly stated his desire to reinvigorate the war on drugs. If you question his racial motivations, look no further than his recent quote on "the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement." So, you would be rightfully concerned to worry how these policies might affect people of color, especially at a time rife with active voter suppression efforts undertaken by Trump himself.

Moreover, moving the conversation on drug policy to the death penalty sets a dangerous precedent. If this actually were to be enacted into law, who would be most affected? And this time, the punishment would not be mass incarceration, it would be mass extermination. Drug dealing is an act often carried out by struggling people looking for a way to support themselves, and Trump now has advocated for killing them for trying to survive. Is what they are doing immoral? Of course it is. But, does it really deserve the death penalty? No. Absolutely not. And to appeal to the conservatives out there, if nothing else, remember that death sentencing puts inmates on death row for years and costs taxpayers a great deal more than a typical imprisonment.