President Trump suggested that executing drug dealers could help solve the opioid crisis during a White House summit Thursday, an event the administration billed as a way to measure its progress in combating the nation’s drug problem.
Trump also said that the administration will roll out unspecified “strong” policies on opioids over the next three weeks. He said he has spoken to Attorney General Jeff Sessions about “bringing a lawsuit against some of these opioid companies.”
White House officials said that the administration is considering whether to make trafficking large quantities of fentanyl a capital crime because of the drug’s potential to kill so many.
“If you shoot one person, you get life in prison,” Trump said. “These people kill 1,000, 2,000 people, and nothing happens to them.”
Trump’s statements came at the end of a two-hour summit on opioid addiction, in which Cabinet secretaries talked about combating the nation’s opioid epidemic with treatment programs and law enforcement officials discussed efforts to disrupt the supply chain for heroin and fentanyl in Mexico and China.
Trump’s emphasis on criminal penalties stands in contrast to the focus on treatment by some of his Cabinet secretaries and many fighting the epidemic nationwide.
Other members of the administration have expressed interest in more-punitive measures: Sessions has directed his prosecutors to pursue the harshest penalties possible in drug cases.
A White House official said Trump has privately expressed interest in Singapore’s policy of executing drug dealers. He also has endorsed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose “drug war” has led to the deaths of thousands of people by extrajudicial police killings. Last year, Trump praised Duterte in a phone call for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” according to the New York Times.
Trump’s comments alarmed some who work in public health.
“We’ve tried enforcement before and interdiction before for many years with the war on drugs, and it’s been completely unsuccessful,” said Andrew Saxon, a psychiatry professor at the University of Washington. “When it comes to the death penalty, I’m totally against it.”
Trump declared the opioid epidemic a “health emergency” in October, but cities overwhelmed by the crisis have complained that there has been little action or money from Washington in the months since.
During the summit, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the administration wants to expand medication-assisted treatment for people who are addicted to opioids and urged states to apply for Medicaid waivers to get people into treatment. Addiction, he said, is a medical issue that needs to be treated as such.
“At HHS and across this administration, we know that we need to treat addiction as a medical challenge, not as a moral failing,” Azar said.
Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen talked about efforts to disrupt overseas suppliers of heroin and fentanyl, including efforts to prosecute traffickers of any fentanyl-related substance and efforts to work with the governments of Mexico and China to cut off the supply chain. Neilsen said that only about two pounds of illicit fentanyl were seized by Customs and Border Protection in 2013; in 2017, the agency interdicted 1,485 pounds of fentanyl.
The summit sought to highlight how addiction has become a personal issue for millions in the country, including some in the administration. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams talked about visiting his brother who suffered from addiction in prison. Jim Carroll, who was just named deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said he has a family member who has struggled with addiction.
Kathleen O’Connor, director of public policy for the treatment advocacy nonprofit group Shatterproof, said she is heartened by the administration’s efforts to combat the opioid crisis. Trump interacted with families at the summit in a compelling way, she said, that shows his attention to the issue.
“I think the administration is obviously making a very concerted effort,” she said. “I was heartened to hear that at least the agencies are focused on solutions.”
The Justice Department on Tuesday said it would file a statement of interest in hundreds of lawsuits against drug companies brought by cities, counties and medical institutions seeking reimbursement for the cost of the drug crisis. Sessions said the Justice Department would seek repayment as well, arguing that the federal government has borne substantial costs.
On Thursday, Sessions directed the Drug Enforcement Administration to consider reducing the number of opioids manufactured in the United States.
But the administration did not specify what its upcoming policy initiatives will be and how it plans to implement recommendations made by an opioid task force.
“While I appreciate that the Trump Administration is continuing to raise awareness about the devastating fentanyl, heroin, and opioid crisis with today’s White House Opioid Summit, what we really need is meaningful action, not just more words,” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said in a statement.