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Trump’s latest bad idea — putting drug dealers to death — is more realistic than you think

Think it can't happen here? Think again.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose soldiers and police have killed thousands in a bloody drug crackdown, shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump (R) in 2017. CREDIT: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose soldiers and police have killed thousands in a bloody drug crackdown, shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump (R) in 2017. CREDIT: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump longs for the power to put drug dealers to death, according to a report from Axios citing unnamed sources close to the president.

“According to five sources who’ve spoken with Trump about the subject, he often leaps into a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty,” the site reported Sunday night. Trump also frequently invokes the violent treatment of drug offenders in Singapore, China, and the Philippines, according to the report, and thinks the United States should emulate the approach.

Trump has fostered warm relations with Phillipines President Rodrigo Duterte despite — or perhaps because of — the latter man’s bloody campaign of street executions of both dealers and users of narcotics. Duterte’s soldiers and police have killed about 10,000 people in the past two years.

But while Trump reportedly acknowledges it would be all but impossible to get legal authority for mass executions of drug traffickers in the United States, other tidbits from the Axios report carry a whiff of plausibility. He believes “the government has got to teach children that they’ll die if they take drugs” and “tells confidants a softer approach to drug reform — the kind where you show sympathy to the offenders and give them more lenient sentences — will never work,” the site said.

The desire to link drugs to death in childrens’ minds might get an outlet very soon. The White House’s budget documents made much of plans to invest several billion dollars in various efforts to combat opioid abuse and addiction. That plan sets aside $50 million for an unspecified “media campaign” around the class of drugs. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spent much of 2017 calling for a return to the failed just-say-no ethos of the 1980s, ’90s, and ’00s, a more than 30-year PR offensive from the government that Congress ended half a decade ago after researchers found it had likely increased drug use.

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Trump’s opioid budget would also bestow hundreds of millions of dollars in funding on private drugmakers — potentially the same exact firms that invented the synthetic heroin substitutes plaguing U.S. society today. The plan calls for investing as much as half a billion dollars in public-private partnerships aimed at crafting alternative medications with less-addictive properties.

That resource dump belies Trump’s tough-guy stance in private. He is interested in stringing up street pushers and cartel smugglers but not in giving the corporate death penalty to companies like Purdue Pharmaceutical, which lied to doctors and patients about the realities of oxycontin for years. Drugmakers and distributors have occasionally paid multi-million-dollar legal settlements to end court cases over their role in the overdose and addiction epidemic, but these payouts amount to a rounding error on their profits.

Trump would have a hard time getting away with the kind of total-war street killings Duterte has used in the Phillipines. But there are other, politer avenues to his desired outcome of putting dealers to death — and prosecutors in several states are already beginning to take them.

Law enforcement outfits in 20 states are authorized to pursue “drug-induced homicide” charges when a given overdose can be connected back to the point of sale, and other states provide slightly more roundabout ways to charge a dealer with a capital crime.

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Such laws don’t actually end up targeting the kinds of major traffickers that Trump seems interested in killing. Their crosshairs are much more likely to fall on people like James Linder, who turned to small-time heroin dealing after getting laid off from the bakery where he worked and got a 28-year sentence on drug-induced homicide charges after the girlfriend of a customer overdosed and died. Most drug sales that law enforcement can tie to a specific overdose involve this same kind of black-market entrepreneurship — often from users looking to support their own habit, such as Amy Shemberger. After Shemberger’s boyfriend overdosed and died, she got convicted of drug-induced homicide and was sent to prison for seven years.

While the desire to avenge drug deaths in blood is perhaps viscerally understandable, it’s an ineffective and roundabout approach to the goal of reducing such deaths. No criminal penalty has ever been shown strong enough an incentive to override the potent chemistry of heroin addiction.

There are more straightforward models of legal reform that do stem the death rate, however. Instead of Singapore or the Phillipines, Trump could look to Portugal, Canada, Switzerland, or Germany as his model. The countries have, to varying degrees, legalized heroin and brought drug transactions out of the shadows. When people addicted to drugs can go to a medical professional who is permitted to supply them with a modest, safe maintenance dose of heroin and counsel them toward recovery, they stand a far better chance of survival. When drug laws render their addiction a furtive back-alley thing, they tend to end up dead.