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President Donald Trump addresses his opioid initiative in Manchester, New Hampshire on Mon. March 19, 2018. In the speech the president said "drug pushers" should receive the death penalty. (WhiteHouse.gov)

'This isn't about nice': Trump's opioid initiative seeks death penalty for drug offenses

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WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — As part of the White House Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse, President Donald Trump will be seeking "the ultimate penalty" for drug dealers.

During a speech in Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday, Trump said that the United States must be able to apply the death penalty to individuals responsible for trafficking deadly opioids.

"We can have all the blue ribbon committees we want, but if we don't get tough on drug dealers, we're wasting our time. Just remember that, we're wasting our time. And that toughness includes the death penalty," Trump told the audience. "This isn't about nice anymore."

The president said he is now working with the Department of Justice to "change the laws" and seek "much tougher" penalties for drug dealers.

"Unless you have really, really powerful penalties, led by the death penalty for really bad pushers and abusers, we are going to get nowhere. And I'm telling you we are going to get somewhere," Trump said.

In the past, Trump has praised countries including Singapore, the Philippines and China, that have "zero tolerance" drug policies, including capital punishment for relatively low-level drug offenses. Trump has openly praised the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, for his anti-drug policies. The Philippine government has openly admitted to killing thousands of drug offenders under laws that went into effect after Duterte took office in 2016.

On Monday, President Trump acknowledged that "maybe our country's not ready" to impose the death penalty for serious drug offenses, but argued that the only way to effectively "win this battle" against opioids is to "very tough" on drug dealers.

Short of the death penalty, the Trump administration will also be asking Congress to update the laws on mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug possession. The new laws are intended "to match the new reality of drugs like fentanyl, which are lethal in much, much smaller doses," explained Andrew Bremberg, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Former Department of Justice official and president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Vanita Gupta criticized the president's plan saying "we cannot punish ourselves out of this crisis." She cited the War on Drugs policies of the past three decades that many argue have left the United States with the largest prison population in the world.

"Unfortunately, the Trump administration is using the same broken playbook on criminal justice. They're seeking a decidedly punitive approach to America’s drug problem – one that seeks to increase already disproportionate sentences for drug offenses & employ the death penalty," she said.

According to John P. Walters, the former Drug Czar under President George W. Bush, the president's proposal for stricter drug laws will provide an important tool for breaking up the illicit drug networks.

"Across the board, it's a good idea," Waters said. Referring to capital punishment, he said, "This is precisely the right tool to use at this time against this network threat that is poisoning Americans at a rate never seen."

The seriousness of the conviction is itself a tool, Walters explained, pointing to evidence that criminals faced with more serious charges, will almost always plead down and give up valuable information about their network.

"We know that to damage these networks we can't just take out one person. We need these laws to reach senior individuals and make them a weapon to damage more of the network," he stressed.

The threat of mandatory minimum sentences have worked in a similar way, Walters said, asserting that the three most important tools federal law enforcement officials have used to break up criminal organizations have been mandatory minimums, witness protection and wiretapping.

Already, the United States has two drug kingpin statutes that could be used to charge and convict individuals of serious drug offenses. It is unclear whether the Department of Justice would need new authorities to apply those laws to criminal opioid traffickers.

The first statute, (18 U.S. Code Sec. 3591) specifically permits the death penalty for a drug offense involving the sale or trafficking of large quantities of drugs. The second, (21 U.S. Code Sec. 848) deals with individuals engaged in a "continuing criminal enterprise" responsible for intentionally killing an individual.

The Department of Justice was unable to provide data on the number of individuals who have been charged or convicted under each statute by the time this article was published.

The way the statutes are currently written, they will be "fairly tough" to apply, explained Ames Grawert, senior counsel at the Brennan Center's Justice Program.

"It won't be applied very broadly because not many people meet the definition. That's probably a good thing," he noted. In the U.S. justice system, death penalty convictions are extremely lengthy and costly, taking years of litigation and government resources.

Moreover, there is little evidence supporting the notion that the death penalty or longer prison sentences actually deter people from committing crimes.

After recent attempts at criminal justice reform and drug sentencing reform, policymakers generally arrived at the consensus that the best criminal deterrent are penalties that are "sharp, swift and certain," Grawert said. Not the threat of a longer penalty or more serious conviction.

"If you're evaluating the president's plan, it might be more symbolic...than actually effective," Grawert added.

Trump's Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse, which he unveiled in New Hampshire on Monday, goes farther than stricter law enforcement.

In an interview with Circa, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar explained that the initiative involves a three-prong approach to combating the drug epidemic: first, addressing, the overprescription of opioid medication by doctors; second, increasing access to addiction treatment and recovery services; and third, cutting off the supply of illegal opioids.

"The nation is facing a devastating, all-community, multigenerational crisis. 116 Americans are dying every single day from opioid overdose" Azar said in an interview with Circa.

"My main focus from the health perspective is preventing people from getting addicted in the first place and treating those who have become addicted," Secretary Azar said. "But we also have an important role, certainly as a federal government, on stopping the illicit use of opioid medications."

Part of that, Azar stressed, is the president's insistence on using law enforcement tools to prevent the spread of these drugs into U.S. communities. "That means being very tough on them and using the statutory authorities we have to punish individuals and entities to the maximum extent permissible by the law," Azar said.

According to the most recent official opioid overdose statistics, more than 42,000 people died in 2016. Nearly half of those deaths were linked to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin.

The majority of the fentanyl sold and used in the United States is trafficked across the U.S. southern border or sent through the U.S. Postal Service from overseas producers, particularly in China.

President Trump has called for stricter border control and inspections to interdict those drugs before they reach U.S. consumers. During his speech in New Hampshire, Trump tied the opioid crisis to his controversial proposal for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, saying he hopes "the Democrats will agree with us and will build the wall to keep the damn drugs out."

To combat the influx of fentanyl through the international mail system, Trump has also called for the use of advanced electronic notification of shipments on international parcels.

Already, the federal government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the states to help them with prevention and drug treatment programs. The Trump administration is currently working with Congress to shore up $6 billion over the next two years to address various aspects of the opioid epidemic. Congress approved the proposed budget last month and the administration is now waiting for lawmakers to appropriate the funds.

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