Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a new memo Wednesday containing the most wholehearted legal endorsement yet of President Donald Trump’s stated willingness to implement the death penalty for the most serious drug cases.
“Drug overdoses, including overdoses caused by the lethal substance fentanyl and its analogues, killed more than 64,000 Americans in 2016 and now rank as the leading cause of death for Americans under 50,” Sessions explains in his memo. “In the face of all of this death, we cannot continue with business as usual.”
“To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal,” Sessions continues. “In addition, this should also include the pursuit of capital punishment in appropriate cases.”
The attorney general goes on to note the death penalty for “drug kingpins” and dealers who cause deaths in the course of their illegal enterprises are already on the American law books:
Congress has passed several statutes that provide the Department with the ability to seek capital punishment for certain drug-related crimes. Among these are statutes that punish certain racketeering activities (18 U.S.C. § 1959); the use of a firearm resulting in death during a drug trafficking crime (18 U.S.C. § 924(j)); murder in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise (21 U.S.C. § 848(e)); and dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs (18 U.S.C. § 3591(b)(1)). I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation.
The issue was brought to the fore Monday when, in laying out his plan for tackling the opioid crisis, President Trump grabbed headlines with his appeal to seek execution of certain drug criminals and his reference to leaders in other countries who claim great success in avoiding a drug crisis like America’s by doing so.
India, Taiwan, and Singapore are examples of democratic states that maintain the death penalty for drug dealers. Singapore, the most oft-referenced of these countries, in fact stipulates mandatory execution for those convicted of trafficking a mere 15 grams of heroin. In 2010, a leading Singaporean diplomat defended the policy in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, writing:
Every society strikes its own balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of society. Capital punishment is an integral part of our successful comprehensive anti-drug strategy. Our tough stance against drugs has saved tens of thousands of lives from the drug menace. It is therefore not surprising that the majority of Singaporeans continue to support the death penalty.
Beyond Sessions, the president’s proposal has found support among some congressional Republicans. George W. Bush era “drug czar” John Walters also came out on Breitbart News Daily in support of allowing prosecutors to use these laws. Left-leaning commentators, meanwhile, have strongly condemned discussing the use of the death penalty for dealers. Some Republicans, for example West Virginia’s Sen. Shelly Moore Capito, have also spoken against the move. Moore Capito told Politico, “I mean, I get the message [Trump is] delivering: We’ve got to treat it seriously. … [But] I don’t see that that’s going to solve the problem.”
As a practical matter, America’s death penalty has never been applied or even sought for purely drug-dealing offenders. No one in the United States has been put to death for a crime other than murder since 1964. Due to a series of Supreme Court rulings since the 1970s, there is a serious constitutional question as to whether it even could be today.
“While recent Supreme Court precedents might allow challenges to the death penalty for drug kingpins, President Trump and Attorney General Sessions could win that fight,” says Breitbart News Senior Legal Editor Ken Klukowski. “A Supreme Court focused on the original meaning of the Constitution would ask whether the death penalty for these kingpins was considered a ‘cruel or unusual punishment’ when the Eighth Amendment was adopted in 1791. The answer is clearly no.”