Why the death penalty is not the right move to fix the opioid crisis

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Photo courtesy of lawlibrary.blogs.pace.edu

By Eli Morton, Gettysburg College Democrats Contributor

As the opioid crisis worsens, the American people have waited patiently for substantive policy proposals on the federal level that combat the crisis. That wait is finally beginning to end. Over the past week, in between attacks on the special counsel, the Trump White House has put forth a mildly substantive plan of action with regards to the crisis. What one sees when looking into the plan is an extension of Trump’s stated desire to pursue “law and order,” which is potentially disastrous when it comes to drugs.

The most newsworthy policy item that Trump put forward regarding opioids last weekend was his desire to pursue the death penalty for serial drug offenders and those who distribute excessive amounts of dangerous opioids such as fentanyl. In doing this, he is not only advocating for a complete return to the failed policies of the 1980’s drug war (and then some), but also policies that are at least vaguely reminiscent of those touted by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines—a man who has murdered thousands of people without due process on the pretense of cracking down on drug trafficking.

This is probably a position that the Trump White House should avoid, especially given that Trump called Duterte in early 2017 and congratulated him for doing “a great job” pertaining to drugs. While this is a topic for a separate article, this proposal will most certainly disproportionately affect people of color already suffering the consequences of a systematically skewed justice system.

The problem is not just optical. Say what you will about capital punishment as an institution, but even those who support the death penalty for extreme crimes should agree that, given the racist and failed legacy of existing drug war policies, calling for the death penalty for drug dealers is not the solution to the problem of opioid abuse. It is worth noting that the death penalty itself is already applied in cases where the defendant is black or brown more often than in cases when the defendant is white, adding yet another racial component to the already-racist drug war.

The death penalty is also more expensive on average to taxpayers than even the most expensive life-without-parole cases, including the cost of keeping a criminal housed in prison for life. Imagine if the amount of money we spent on all of these potential additional death penalty cases were instead spent on rehabilitation and treatment for those addicted and increased access to anti-overdose drugs such as Naloxone.

Furthermore, one top administration official described the president’s plan to deal with lower-level offenders as a desire to leave them “languishing in prison,” which is yet another endorsement of drug-war era policies, prompting outcry from experts. One health policy expert went as far as to say that referring to Trump’s Monday speech outlining the main points of his plan as a “1980s-style drug war speech” being “unfair to the 1980s.”

The silver lining is this: the Trump White House, specifically Kellyanne Conway, did say that the plan that the administration is advocating will include plans for ramping up treatment and rehabilitation services—how much so is unclear at the moment. Congress last month allocated $6 billion to be appropriated for opioid-related causes. They will have the final say on what that money gets put towards, but if they choose to pursue “law and order” to a greater degree than treatment and rehabilitation, then we could see the continuation of failed, racist and destructive policies as opposed to legitimate solutions to the epidemic.

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