Analysis, Commentary

Trump’s Call for Death Penalty is the Wrong Response to Drug War

Donald Trump and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte
U.S. President Donald Trump and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in this collage image. (Photo: 8list)

Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—March 12, 2018

By: Widney Brown

At the White House Summit on the opioid crisis, President Trump publicly indicated he would like to emulate policies of China, the Philippines, and Singapore by executing drug sellers, confirming an earlier a report by Axios. Such a policy undermines civil liberties and, despite claims to the contrary, will neither save lives nor mitigate the crisis.

The Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, whom Trump says has done an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” is no role model — he is a reported killer. Duterte has not only overseen a large-scale campaign of state-sanctioned murders of people believed to be involved with drugs but has bragged about having himself killed people.

These policies violate human rights principles that safeguard human life. That a U.S. president would hold up Duterte as a role model and would argue for such cruel and draconian practices is indefensible.

This is not the first time that we have faced an overdose crisis in the U.S., although the numbers for this current crisis are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we are in the midst of the “worst drug overdose epidemic in history.”

In 2016, drug overdoses accounted for over 64,000 U.S. deaths, including over 42,000 — the most ever — from misuse of opioids, typically in combination with other drugs. On average, 175 Americans are dying each day from overdoses.

But unlike in earlier times we know two things. First, declaring a war on drugs and unleashing the policing power of the state destroys lives, not saves them. Second, we now know how to save lives, even with the threat of drugs adulterated by the powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl.

Instead of calling for mass execution of suspects, Trump can champion a much more effective policy for saving lives of those suffering through addiction.

We can save lives immediately by implementing harm reduction practices that have been shown to prevent overdoses and related harms. And by opening or expanding syringe access programs, enacting Good Samaritan laws, ensuring widespread distribution and easy access to naloxone, safe consumption sites where people using drugs can be monitored to protect against overdoses and drug testing kits that allow someone to check if the drugs they are planning to consume have been adulterated.

We can fund accessible, evidence-based treatment programs for people whose use of drugs is problematic so they can get the help they need. This means accepting that medication based therapies are effective and rejecting the “moral” imperative of abstinence only programs.

We can teach people, including young people, about drugs in a manner that allows them to make well-informed choices about drug use and if the choice is to use drugs, to do so in a safer manner.

But none of these measures will be fully effective unless we destigmatize drug use. This means not just removing the issue of drugs from the law enforcement sector to the public health sector, but also re-dressing the past harms to all the people whose lives have been destroyed because they have been criminalized for drug use or possession. There numbers are not insignificant.

In 2016, more than 1.5 million people were arrested on drug-related charges, 84 percent of which were solely for possession only. Of the more than 650,000 people arrested for marijuana, 89 percent were charged for possession only.

People with drug convictions are denied access to higher education; they and their families may be evicted from public housing; they may be subjected to a lifetime ban on welfare; parents may lose their parental rights; and, most will lose the right to vote.

These consequences destroy lives. And because the police enforce drug laws predominantly in black and brown communities, and other marginalized communities, the lives destroyed are those already struggling with exclusion and discrimination.

There are some signs of hope at home and abroad. More and more states and municipalities are adopting harm reduction practices and challenging the claims that the war on drugs is anything but an abject failure. The International Criminal Court is assessing whether Duterte’s policy constitutes a crime against humanity.

President Trump, you campaigned with a promise to address the overdose crisis in the U.S. Implicit in that promise was your wanting to save lives. The choice is yours: Glorify and emulate a murderer or adopt effective policies and practices that not just save lives but restore hope.

Widney Brown is the managing director of policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.