“These people [drug dealers] kill thousands of people over the course of their lives through drugs. So we’re going to have to get much, much tougher in terms of penalty. And if you want to stop it — if you look at certain countries where they have, as an example, the death penalty, and say, ‘How’s your drug problem?’ And they will tell you, ‘We don’t have much of a drug problem.’ ”
— President Trump, during a panel discussion in Washington, March 22, 2018
Trump has a prescription for solving drug trafficking and the deadly opioid epidemic: Give the death penalty to drug dealers.
Some people convicted of murder already receive death sentences in the United States. But the president argues that even dealers and drug lords who do not commit violent crimes should be put to death, because they are hooking thousands of people on drugs that could kill them.
It’s not the first time Trump has suggested death sentences for drug dealers. White House officials have said the administration is considering whether to make trafficking large quantities of fentanyl — an especially lethal synthetic opioid — a capital offense.
Is capital punishment effective at deterring drug crimes in countries where dealers are put to death?
The U.S. landscape for drug trafficking has shifted in the past 10 years as the abuse of prescription painkillers, heroin, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids reached epidemic levels, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“While the current opioid crisis has received significant attention, other drugs of abuse remain prevalent,” the DEA reported at the end of 2017. “These include methamphetamine, cocaine, new psychoactive substances (NPS), and marijuana. In addition, drug poisoning deaths are the leading cause of injury death in the United States; they are currently at their highest ever recorded level and, every year since 2011, have outnumbered deaths by firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide, and homicide.”
Trump has mused about giving drug dealers the death penalty, but it’s not clear that his idea would pass legal muster.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that Louisiana could not impose the death penalty “for the rape of a child where the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in the death of the victim.” The case did not involve a drug dealer, but the court said “the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken.”
The justices did not close the door to what Trump suggests, however. “We do not address, for example, crimes defining and punishing treason, espionage, terrorism, and drug kingpin activity, which are offenses against the state,” not against individuals, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Assuming it could be done, would this form of capital punishment be effective at curbing drug trafficking? We investigated what the drug situation looks like in countries that put drug traffickers to death and found that Trump’s argument largely fails to hold water.
“The majority of those sentenced to death and executed are low level couriers who often experience overlapping and intersecting forms of vulnerability, discrimination and exclusion and who are often subjected to forced confessions and unfair trials,” according to Harm Reduction International, a nongovernmental organization partly funded by the European Union that keeps track of death-penalty laws for drug offenses around the world. “Not only do these executions continue to fail to achieve any reduction in drug use and trafficking, they are also a clear violation of fundamental human rights under international law.”
According to HRI, at least 32 countries and the Palestinian Authority employ some form of capital punishment for drug offenses. But of those countries and territories, only seven execute drug offenders with regularity. The rate of such executions appears to be declining.
“Between January 2015 and December 2017, at least 1,320 people are known to have been executed for drug-related offenses — 718 in 2015; 325 in 2016; and 280 in 2017,” HRI reported. “These estimates do not include China, as reliable figures continue to be unavailable for the country.”
Amnesty International says 35 countries and the Palestinian Authority impose the death penalty for drug offenses; Amnesty’s list is almost entirely the same as HRI’s.
Asked to provide examples that supported Trump’s claim, an administration official pointed to Singapore, which has the death penalty for various drug offenses and claims to have one of the lowest rates of substance abuse in the world.
To test Trump’s claim, we reviewed what the drug situation looks like in the seven countries classified by HRI as being “high application states” for drug-related death sentences, including Singapore.
China: News reports indicate that China has a significant drug-trafficking problem. “In March , the China National Narcotics Control Commission told media that China’s seizure of synthetic drugs including methamphetamine and ketamine has ‘surged by 106 percent year on year in 2016,’ ” the BBC reported. The official Xinhua news agency said in November that a part of Guangdong province is “plagued with rampant drug production and trafficking,” the BBC reported.
Amnesty International says China executed more people in 2016 than all other countries combined. But we could not find any data breaking down how many drug offenders have been executed.
Iran: “Drug trafficking represents a major challenge for the Islamic Republic of Iran,” according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “The geographical location of the country, particularly its porous 1,923 km-long [1,194-mile-long] Eastern border with Afghanistan — the world’s largest illicit opium producer — and Pakistan, has turned it into a major transit country for illicit drugs. … According to the UNODC World Drug Report 2014, Iran accounted for 74 percent of the world’s opium seizures and 25 percent of the world’s heroin and morphine seizures in 2012.”
According to HRI, when excluding China, Iran accounted for nearly 90 percent of executions for drug offenses recorded worldwide during the past three years, “with at least 1,176 executions carried out” from 2015 to 2017. Of those, 242 were carried out in 2017, HRI reported.
“Iranian officials have admitted that most of those executed for drug offenses are not the major traffickers, but poor and marginalized people who carry drugs for very little money,” HRI reported.
Iran recently abolished the death penalty for some drug-related crimes. As of November, “capital punishment is reserved for those charged with trafficking 2 kilograms of hard drugs or more than 50 kilograms of cannabis or opium” but “the death sentence still applies for repeat offenders and lethal drug-related offenses,” according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Saudi Arabia: As of 2009, the U.S. State Department reported that “Saudi Arabia has no appreciable drug production and is not a significant transit country. … However, Saudi officials acknowledge that illegal drug consumption and trafficking are on the rise.” At least 35 people were executed for drug offenses in 2017, according to HRI.
Malaysia: Police seized nearly $50 million worth of illicit drugs in Malaysia in 2017, according to local media, and made 163,931 drug-related arrests. Malaysia abolished mandatory death sentences for drug offenses in 2017, and did not execute anyone for drug-related offenses that year, according to HRI.
Singapore: Singapore’s population stood at 5.6 million in 2016, less than New York City’s and more than Los Angeles’s. It is geographically small, about one-quarter the size of Rhode Island. Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, the country’s ambassador to the United States, says Singapore’s tough drug laws are an effective deterrent to trafficking. “Singapore has one of the lowest rates of drug abuse in the world: 30 opiates abusers per 100,000 people, compared with 600 in the United States,” he wrote in a letter to the editor to The Washington Post in March.
Singapore executed eight people for drug offenses from 2015 through 2017, according to HRI.
Vietnam: According to the State Department, “Vietnam is an illicit drug transshipment point for local and international criminal organizations.” The death penalty is a state secret in Vietnam. A 2017 report from the country’s Ministry of Public Security said “429 prisoners were executed between August 2013 and June 2016,” according to HRI, but there’s no breakdown of how many executions stemmed from drug offenses.
Indonesia: The president of Indonesia has called on police to shoot drug dealers who resist arrest. “Shoot them because we indeed are in a narcotics emergency position now,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters in 2017. However, HRI did not learn of instances of drug dealers being executed in 2017, and it reported that “in January 2018, Indonesian politicians agreed to soften the country’s harsh death penalty laws by imposing a 10-year stay on executions, after which death sentences could be commuted to a prison term.”
A White House official previously told The Washington Post that Trump privately has expressed interest in Singapore’s policy of executing drug dealers. He has publicly endorsed the stance of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose “drug war” has led to the deaths of thousands of people in extrajudicial police killings. U.S. law forbids extrajudicial killings on suspicion of drug crimes. Duterte’s actions have sparked international condemnation.
“President Trump’s statements are extremely concerning, on many levels,” said Chiara Sangiorgio, a death penalty expert at Amnesty International. “International law requires countries that have not yet abolished the death penalty to restrict their use of the death penalty to the ‘most serious crimes,’ which does not include drug-related offenses.”
She added: “It is also worrying that President Trump states that the death penalty would have a deterrent effect on drug crime, when there is no evidence suggesting that this is the case, for drug or any crime. We have seen already in other countries that the death penalty has failed to stop the illegal drug trade or protect those who use drugs and those around them.”
The Pinocchio Test
Trump argues that certain countries that put drug dealers to death do not have “much of a drug problem.” Of 33 countries and territories that impose death sentences for drug offenses, only seven do so with regularity, according to HRI.
China, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia and Vietnam all have significant problems with drug production or trafficking, despite their use of capital punishment for these crimes.
Saudi Arabia has a slight drug problem. Singapore does not really have a drug problem, but it is also a relatively small country with a population roughly equal to that of Colorado or Wisconsin. It’s not an apt comparison.
The facts hardly support the president’s claim, so we award Three Pinocchios.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Keep tabs on Trump’s promises with our Trump Promise Tracker
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter