(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

“Some of these drug dealers will kill thousands of people during their lifetime — thousands of people — and destroy many more lives than that. But they will kill thousands of people during their lifetime, and they’ll get caught and they’ll get 30 days in jail. Or they’ll go away for a year, or they’ll be fined. And yet, if you kill one person, you get the death penalty or you go to jail for life.”
— President Trump, remarks on combating the opioid crisis, March 19

“A drug dealer will kill 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 people, during the course of his or her life. … Thousands of people are killed, or their lives are destroyed, their families are destroyed. So you can kill thousands of people and go to jail for 30 days. They catch a drug dealer, they don’t even put him in jail. … Think of it: You kill 5,000 people with drugs, because you’re smuggling them in and you’re making a lot of money and people are dying, and they don’t even put you in jail, they don’t do anything. But you might get 30 days, 60 days, 90 days.”
— Trump, remarks at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, March 10

What is the president talking about?

Are there drug dealers who kill “2,000, 3,000, 5,000 people” and get off with just 30 days in jail?

The math seems a little fantastical, so we decided to check it out.

The Facts

We consulted a number of experts on the illegal drug market, and the president’s comments left them scratching their heads. No state, not even California or Ohio, has more than 5,000 overdose deaths in a single year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mark A.R. Kleiman of New York University offered some very rough numbers.

“Cannabis aside, the total drug markets in the U.S. at retail probably generate $50 billion a year in illicit revenue,” he said. If the average dealer earned $50,000 a year (which is way high, since most dealers are small-scale retailers, many of them supporting their own habits), that would suggest something like 1 million full-time equivalent dealers. There are less than 100,000 total drug overdose deaths, which would be less than one-tenth of a death per dealer per year on average.”

When we dug into specific drugs — such as heroin — Trump’s claim still did not add up. There are 1 million heroin users in the United States, and about 2,000 dealers are arrested each year. The number of heroin deaths is about 12,000 a year. Even if one assumes there were twice as many dealers as those arrested — a very low-ball assumption — that would only be three people per dealer a year.

Killing your clients is probably not a good long-term business proposition, but there has been an uptick in deaths related to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, that has been mixed in with heroin to give it a stronger kick.

White House officials suggested we were looking at this too closely at the ground level. Instead, when Trump refers to “dealers,” he’s apparently talking about the people at the top of the pyramid.

As an example, we were directed to a case in Knoxville, Tenn., where a grand jury in January accused seven people, including two who fled to Italy, of running a drug trafficking conspiracy to distribute oxycodone, oxymorphone and morphine through pain management clinics between 2009 and 2015.

The indictment says about 700 patients “are now dead and a significant percentage of those deaths, directly or indirectly, were the result of overdosing on narcotics prescribed” by Urgent Care & Surgery Center Enterprise, the defendants’ company. The death toll attributed to the enterprise is said to still be climbing.

Still, even a “significant percentage” of 700, or twice that, is not going to get you to 2,000 or above. The indictment also said that investigators had charged an additional 30 narcotics traffickers and 80 to 90 small narcotic distributors. It’s hard to parse out exactly how many deaths each person would be responsible for, unless you pin all of the deaths on the top of the pyramid.

Moreover, the illicit drug markets are so fluid — and dealers so replaceable — that whoever is taken off the streets by law enforcement is quickly replaced.

Even more problematic is Trump’s claim that someone who has killed “thousands” would end up in jail for just 30 or so days. He appears to be mixing up small-time dealers with kingpins.

“A retail cocaine dealer who gets arrested with a small amount and pleads to a possession charge might well get a few months in jail,” Kleiman said. “Since those people are utterly replaceable, it’s really not worth locking them up, except for the minority who commit violent acts in connection with their dealing.”

The big dealers usually face harsh prison terms. For instance, on March 21, two days after one of the president’s statements, the two leaders of a New Mexico drug trafficking organization were sentenced to 10-year prison terms for methamphetamine trafficking, heroin trafficking and money laundering offenses.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in 2017 the average sentence for drug trafficking was 66 months — and about 96 percent of drug-trafficking offenders were sentenced to prison.

The Pinocchio Test

The president asserted: “You can kill thousands of people and go to jail for 30 days.”

Once again, the president ends up in Four-Pinocchio territory because of the way he frames his rhetoric. He may have a point that “kingpin” drug dealers are responsible for at least hundreds of deaths. But then he cannot turn around and say they only end up with 30 or so days in prison if they are caught. A handful of drug dealers might get by with a little prison time, but those are the small fry, not the people responsible for many deaths.

Four Pinocchios

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Four Pinocchios
"Some of these drug dealers will kill thousands of people during their lifetime — thousands of people — and destroy many more lives than that…and they’ll get caught and they’ll get 30 days in jail."
remarks on combating the opioid crisis, Washington DC
Monday, March 19, 2018