Rx: Death to Drug Dealers
Terry H. Schwadron
March 12, 2018
President Trump’s call yesterday to consider the death penalty for drug dealers was perfect Trump: It is a provocative idea without nuance, without practicality, without caring about what the statement could mean in the real world.
Recalling statements of support for President Roberto Duerte of the Philippines, who has boasted of actually murdering street dealers, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping for maintain an extremely tough court system, Trump said, “The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness. When you catch a drug dealer, you’ve got to put him away for a long time.”
Earlier, he had described the death penalty as a way to find the opioid epidemic, although it was never quite clear who could be killed. The Washington Post reported last Friday that the Trump administration was considering policy changes to allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
A couple of questions pop up immediately. Just who would Trump sentence to death? Would that include the fabulously wealthy Sackler family, who created Purdue Pharma, the company that that developed OxyContin, which has been widely prescribed and abused, leading to the opioid crisis. Was he threatening death to Chinese pharma distributors who are flooding U.S. markets with unregulated synthetic fentanyl?
Would his death penalty threat reach doctors and hospitals who overprescribe pain pills? Since he was talking in the Pennsylvania district for an election to replace a resigned congressman, could he possibly have been threatening former Rep. Tom Merino, who last October was identified by The Washington Post and 60 Minutes as the chief advocate for a bill that hobbled the ability of the Drug Enforcement Agency to combat opioid distribution?
What are the chances that Trump is talking about street dealers, particularly in nonwhite, urban neighborhoods rather than white-collar drug criminals?
The irony in Trump’s remarks is that the opioid crisis is a death penalty — for those who become hooked. More deaths are being reported for opioids these days than auto accidents. Other than sloganeering, where exactly is the president, who has lagged for months to come up with treatment monies and an organized approach to the pandemic?
Look, the reason that criminal justice system is under discussion for “reform” is because, as a national system, it has proved unduly harsh to minorities arrested and convicted of relatively smaller-scale crime. This is not a column about the need for prison reform, but the arguments are very compelling to suggest that there is a huge gap between the nation’s teeming prison population and any rational conception of effective justice.
Instead, this column is meant to question the Trump administration’s continuing unraveling of law enforcement for political purposes.
At heart, the opioid crisis is a public health issue rather than a criminal-death penalty problem. Millions of dollars have been poured into law enforcement efforts involving drugs over the last 30 years and we have more and deeper drug problems than ever. The last thing we need is sloganeering saber-rattling from the president.
But this campaign publicity stunt about ordering death penalty sentences requires an unseen enemy, just as attacking the media or railing against immigrants posing as voters or calling out people for failing to use the expression “Merry Christmas,” whether it is their holiday or not.
Just in recent days, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions has launched a broadside political campaign against federal judges who oppose the president’s agenda, noting constitutional questions evident in Travel Bans, for example, or calling for the end to political gerrymandering. Sessions has time and energy enough to single out the Oakland mayor for alerting city residents about coming Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, but not enough attention for civil rights enforcement and consumer protection efforts.
It’s not just Justice: EPA Director Scott Pruitt is meeting cooperatively with companies that were being prosecuted by the agency; Budget Director Mike Mulvaney, who also runs the Consumer Fraud and Protection agency, is abandoning prosecutions.
The president believes in Law & Order when it is convenient. It is law and order to allow unfettered investigation of the all-things-Russia matters, but Trump is fighting that like crazy. It is law and order to go after bank executives who caused the country’s economy to fail, to pursue justice with corporations that are killing the environment, to go after financial institutions that are bilking student loan accounts. But you don’t hear the president take the campaign stage to say he wants stronger law enforcement efforts against white businessmen, or against those caught up in bribery and international intrigue.
Instead, the Trump administration is renewing efforts to enforce marijuana laws despite a rising number of elections in states where marijuana has been decriminalized. Where is the Trump effort to crack down on illegal gun sales and ownership? Where is the administration concern about payday loan operators? Where is the administration concern about insurance companies contributing to public health deaths by withdrawing from various rural marketplaces?
There is no end to the number of social justice problems that demean, debilitate or harm, particularly among the nation’s most vulnerable residents.
No, this is a column about anger over the president’s loose talk about death penalties as a simplistic answer to real problems in our society.
What we don’t need are more campaign slogans.