The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The debunked claims and faux ‘facts’ supporting Trump’s plan to execute drug dealers

(Michael Conroy/AP)

As former president Donald Trump held rallies across the country in advance of the midterm elections, a central part of his speech was a dramatic proposal to begin executing drug dealers quickly, with little recourse for defendants to due process rules that might prevent swift prosecution and sentencing. Trump presents his idea with a blizzard of statistics and figures — and a gruesome anecdote — to justify what would be an extraordinary and legally shaky change in criminal justice policy.

As is often the case with Trump, the claims he makes as part of this riff are easily debunked or cannot be verified. And, as he often does, Trump speaks in admiring terms about an authoritarian regime as he offers China as a role model — although with an inaccurate depiction of its practices and history.

Yet Trump’s plan to execute drug dealers is one of the few substantive policy proposals he makes in speeches that delve deeply into grievances about his defeat in the 2020 election. As president, Trump sometimes complained that sentences were not tough enough for drug dealers. Now he appears to have developed a solution.

So it should be taken seriously, especially because it might feature prominently if, as expected, he announces a third run for the presidency.

Here’s a line-by-line dissection of specific claims Trump made at an Ohio rally Nov. 7 for Senate candidate J.D. Vance as he detailed his proposal to the cheers of the audience. A Trump spokesman did not respond to a query concerning the sourcing for Trump’s statistics and other claims.

“Biden and the radical Democrats do nothing to stop the lethal poisons pouring across our borders. And we had it almost stopped.”

As president, Trump often touted how much seizures of drugs at the southern border had increased on his watch. (Most drugs are smuggled through legal ports of entry.) This is an imperfect metric. It could mean that law enforcement is doing a better job. But more seizures also might indicate that the drug flow has increased, and that law enforcement is missing even more.

In any case, the flow of drugs over the border was not “almost stopped” under Trump. Under Biden, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics, overall drug seizures have dropped, especially for marijuana, but have increased substantially for fentanyl — the drug most responsible for overdose deaths. Both the decrease in marijuana seizures and the increase in fentanyl seizures reflect trends that started under Trump.

A few moments later, Trump made a similar if slightly different claim — “the drugs are seven times to 10 times higher than when we had it only two years ago.” There are no government figures that verify that statement.

“Since the end of the Trump administration, the drug cartels have seen their revenue skyrocket by an astounding — listen to this one, you businesspeople, you think you’re good at business, you’re nothing compared to these people — 2,500 percent.”

The illicit drug business can be extraordinarily profitable, especially when making synthetic opioids. Fentanyl-type products have an inexpensive and easy-to-make formula. But Trump offers a suspiciously precise statistic — 2,500 percent — for an industry that does not publish revenue figures and whose financials can only be roughly estimated. Moreover, price increases often happen at the retail level — north of the border — and do not return to the drug cartels in Mexico.

A Rand study released in May estimated that the median price for illegally manufactured fentanyl has declined more than 50 percent from 2016 to 2021. Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center, said, “We have no idea how many people are using illegally manufactured fentanyl and heroin in the U.S., let alone how many people are selling these products.”

He said the most recent study on spending on illicit drugs was completed in 2016 — and it showed spending in the United States for cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine was about $150 billion that year. That was little changed from 2006. But that study did not cover fentanyl, as there is not good data on fentanyl consumption.

“Much of the crime wave is caused by drug dealers who, during the course of their lives, will kill an average of 500 Americans. Think of that. A drug dealer. You see, a drug dealer will kill on average 500 people.”

Trump offers another precise statistic, again very dubious. As Kilmer noted, the number of drug dealers is unknown, making it impossible to estimate how many people die per drug dealer. But on a practical level, his figure makes little sense.

About 600,000 people died of drug overdoses from 2010 to 2020, according to the National Institutes of Health. Doing the math, Trump’s statistic would suggest that there are only 1,200 drug dealers in the United States. But the federal government prosecutes nearly 20,000 drug traffickers a year.

Still, for Trump, this figure is a rare pullback. As president, he would routinely say drug dealers would kill thousands of people, such as in 2018: “A drug dealer will kill 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 people, during the course of his or her life.”

At the time, when we investigated this statistic, White House officials suggested that Trump was not talking about ordinary dealers but drug kingpins. They pointed to a drug trafficking conspiracy in Knoxville, Tenn., to distribute oxycodone, oxymorphone and morphine through pain management clinics. Some 12 million opioid pills were prescribed by the group, leading to as many as 700 deaths, prosecutors said.

As president, Trump often claimed that drug dealers would just get 30 days in jail. One of the alleged ringleaders in the Knoxville case, a 56-year-old grandmother, in 2020 was sentenced to more than 33 years in jail.

Whether the death penalty could be applied to drug dealers is unclear. The Supreme Court, in a 2008 ruling, said “the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken.” But the majority opinion did not completely close the door: “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.

“I am calling for the death penalty for drug dealers and human traffickers, which will, upon its passage, reduce drug distribution and reduce crime in our country by a minimum of 75 percent.”

The death penalty has not been shown to be effective in reducing crime or murder rates in the United States, according to research — in part because it is applied so rarely that researchers cannot easily measure the impact. Trump’s estimate of a 75 percent reduction appears to have been conjured out of thin air.

“With President Xi in China, I see him and say, ‘President, you have 1.5 billion people. Do you have a drug problem?’ ‘No, no, no drug problem.’ ”

There is no way of knowing whether Xi Jinping said this to Trump, but Trump several times recounted a similar conversation during his presidency. But if Xi ever said this to Trump, he was spinning him.

News reports indicate that China has a significant drug-trafficking problem. “In March [2017], 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 2018 that a part of Guangdong province is “plagued with rampant drug production and trafficking,” the BBC reported.

The number of drug addicts officially registered with the Chinese government rose to about 2.5 million in 2013 from just under a million in 2001, according to a 2016 Brookings Institution report titled, “A People’s War: China’s Struggle to Contain its Illicit Drug Problem.”

A 2022 Chinese government report said the number of drug users had dropped to 1.5 million in 2021, which the report credited to a concerted anti-drug campaign. The report also said that prosecutors uncovered 41,000 drug smuggling, trafficking, and transportation cases and arrested 60,000 traffickers.

China was a significant source of fentanyl in the United States until, under pressure from the Trump administration, it imposed new controls on all forms of fentanyl. According to the State Department, these controls resulted in the detection of no shipments of fentanyl from China since September 2019. But the State Department says traffickers simply switched tactics, and as a result of “ineffective oversight,” China remains a major source of precursor chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl in Mexico for shipment to the United States.

“Xi goes, ‘We have a quick trial.’ … That means they catch a drug dealer, they give them a quick trial, not a trial that takes 12 years and 12 years of appeals. Twenty-five years later, and everyone’s dead by the time they get to the end of that. Now, this is a trial that takes approximately two hours. And if they’re guilty, they are executed.”

Trump is in the ballpark here. But it is wrong to suggest that all drug dealers in China receive the death sentence and that all are quickly executed.

China is known to have a high number of executions — potentially thousands a year, according to Amnesty International — for several offenses, including nonviolent crimes such as bribery and running a sex-work ring. Appeals are limited. But China does not disclose the annual figure of those killed because the use of the death penalty is classified as a state secret. Harm Reduction International, in a 2022 report, said it could confirm at least one execution for drug offenses in China in 2021 — that of a woman.

The Sun newspaper in 2018 quoted local media as reporting that two Chinese drug dealers were sentenced to death in front of thousands of people, including 300 schoolchildren, as part of international anti-drug day. They were immediately taken to an execution ground and killed. Seventeen other drug dealers were also put on trial in front of the crowd, with eight being given death sentences or death sentences with suspension, according to the report.

“The bullet. I don’t know if anybody wants to know this. It gets a little bit too graphic, but the bullet is sent to their families, you know that, right? You know that it’s actually sent to their families. It’s pretty tough stuff. There’s no games. So they have no drug problem whatsoever.”

There is limited evidence to support Trump’s anecdote, but it appears out of date. The Chinese government today carries out most executions with lethal injection. So there would be no bullet to deliver.

“The move to lethal injection also facilitates the use of the organs of executed prisoners, in circumstances where their meaningful consent is impossible,” said Kevin Darling, a spokesman for Amnesty International. “Claims that family members were presented with the bullet date back to Cultural Revolution times, so they could be considered historical, but it is not something Amnesty has documented — especially not in recent decades.” The Cultural Revolution took place between 1966 and 1976.

Nicola Macbean, the director of the Rights Practice in London and an expert on human rights in China, also said that with the advent of lethal injections, such a practice probably is not in current use and it probably was never an official policy.

“I have heard of bullets being sent to the family following execution, but I suspect this is no longer the practice and it’s unclear if it was widespread,” she said. She noted that The Washington Post, in a 1994 report, said that in some cases a prisoner’s family was billed for the bullet — the equivalent of about 6 cents — or else the executed person’s ashes would not be returned to the family.

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