When Donald Trump talks about America’s opiate crisis, he tells a story about two kinds of people. First, there are the people struggling with addiction—good people, as Trump often points out, deserving of compassion and treatment, many of them representatives of the white middle-American communities that helped to elect him. And then there are the dealers, the “pushers,” the bad people, who—in Trump’s implicitly racialized narrative—stream across a weak southern border, find haven in sanctuary cities, and prey on the vulnerable; what they deserve is punishment.
Trump told versions of this story on the campaign trail, and did so again on Monday in New Hampshire, where he outlined his administration’s plan for responding to the opioid crisis. Trump spoke of one couple’s “beautiful son,” a “great boy” who died of a fentanyl overdose, and about the need for more “evidence-based, science-based, compassionate treatment.” His proposals do include some policy initiatives supported by public-health advocates, like increasing access to medications used to treat opioid addiction, such as methadone and buprenorphine. But what clearly excited Trump most were his ideas for getting “tough” on drug dealers—ramping up mandatory sentences, even executing some people. “[I]f we don’t get tough on drug dealers, we’re wasting our time…and that toughness includes the death penalty,” Trump said. (It also includes “ending” sanctuary cities and building a border wall “to keep the damn drugs out.”)
It’s not clear yet if Trump’s call for killing drug dealers will become more than a talking point. On Wednesday, the Department of Justice sent memo from Attorney General Jeff Sessions encouraging federal prosecutors to pursue “capital punishment in appropriate cases” when prosecuting drug traffickers. Under a 1994 federal law, the death penalty could be sought for major kingpins, but the law has never been applied that way and so it has not been tested by a constitutional challenge. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly and consistently rejected the use of the death penalty in cases where there has been no murder by the convicted individual,” Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement. Regardless, the speech signaled—not for the first time—that the White House and the Department of Justice under Sessions is rededicating itself to punitive drug-war policies. Sessions has already moved to void Obama-era sentencing reforms.