Trump to call for the death penalty for some opioid dealers, but White House won’t say how it would be applied

Hydrocodone and acetaminophen tablets, also known as Vicodin, at the Oklahoma Hospital Discount Pharmacy in Edmond, Okla.
Hydrocodone and acetaminophen tablets, also known as Vicodin, at the Oklahoma Hospital Discount Pharmacy in Edmond, Okla.
(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

President Trump plans to push ahead with a controversial call for the death penalty for some drug dealers as part of a larger initiative to fight opioid abuse, a senior White House official said Sunday.

But in a conference call with reporters, a senior administration official declined to provide any examples of circumstances under which convicted drug traffickers would face capital punishment, other than saying “appropriate” parameters would be established. The official referred further questions to the Justice Department.

Some details of the plan are to be unveiled during Trump’s scheduled visit Monday to New Hampshire, which has been hit hard by the opioid crisis. It will be Trump’s first visit as president to the state, which ranks third nationwide in the rate of drug overdose deaths.

The death-penalty element of Trump’s drug plan has been criticized by public health experts and others who point out that many of the people addicted to opioids were hooked initially by legally prescribed drugs.


Trump floated the death-penalty plan this month at a White House gathering focusing on opioid abuse, saying drug traffickers “are killing hundreds and hundreds of people.”

The president has at times expressed admiration for countries with draconian penalties for trafficking drugs. Trump has praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who presided over a drug war that has left thousands of people dead and has drawn heavy criticism from human rights groups and many Western governments.

The president has been criticized for touting penal solutions to the opioid crisis rather than emphasizing the public-health component. White House officials, however, said the plan to be unveiled in New Hampshire will stress education and prevention, halting the flow of illegal drugs, and bolstering treatment and recovery.

Few specifics were provided about the initiative, but the White House officials said it would include a nationwide goal of reducing opioid prescriptions being filled by one-third within three years.

The White House officials said no backing was envisioned for so-called safe injection sites, which a few cities have adopted or are considering as a means of preventing overdose deaths.

Some pain-management professionals have argued that across-the-board cuts in prescriptions could leave some chronically or terminally ill patients in unnecessary agony.

Cutting back on prescriptions could also lead people who have become dependent on pain killers to shift to illegal drugs, such as heroin, or others, such as fentanyl, which already accounts for a significant number of overdoses.

Opioid abuse has reached crisis proportions in recent years, with the death rate from overdoses continuing to rise. In 2016, about 64,000 people died from all drug overdoses across the country, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The fastest increase has come in overdoses from synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, which accounted for about 20,000 deaths in 2016, according to the CDC.

Deaths attributed to heroin overdoses have also increased rapidly in the last several years. Fatal overdoses from prescription opioids increased rapidly from 2002 to 2011, but have leveled off since then. Each of those categories accounted for roughly 15,000 deaths in 2016, according to the CDC.

The administration’s stated commitment to tackling the problem has not been coupled with concrete funding plans. Instead, the White House has sought deep cuts to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The new plan appeared in some ways reminiscent of the president’s much-ballyhooed infrastructure plan unveiled this year, which called mainly for state and private funding for major projects.

New Hampshire is friendlier political territory for Trump than California, which he visited last week. The New England state’s voters supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, but narrowly.

Some in the state were offended last year when Trump described the state as a “drug-infested den.” That characterization emerged in news reports about a conversation the president had with Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto last August, in which Trump complained vociferously about illicit drugs flooding across the United States’ southern border.