The White House almost certainly isn't trying to get the death penalty for convictions for drug dealingitself. (If it were, it would almost certainly run afoul of the Supreme Court, which has ruled that sentencing people to death for any crime short of murder violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.)
Federal prosecutors are only allowed to seek the death penalty in federal first-degree murder cases. It sounds like the proposal would be for prosecutors to treat fatal opioid overdoses as homicides and charge the dealer who provided the drugs in the death. (Though expanding the federal first-degree murder statute to include overdose deaths would require an act of Congress.)
Prosecutors are already using overdose deaths as an occasion to impose harsher sentences on drug dealers, at both the state and federal levels. (It's hardly a wing-nut thing; one of the pioneers of this tactic was former US Attorney Preet Bharara of New York, who's now a prominent Trump critic.)
Sometimes they're just asking for longer sentences because the defendant's product resulted in a death; sometimes they charge dealers with manslaughter or criminal negligence. The Florida state legislature passed a law last year allowing prosecutors to file murder charges against heroin or fentanyl dealers after fatal overdoses — a charge that allows them to seek the death penalty.
Using the death penalty for dealers will either do nothing or do bad things
But there is no evidence that the tactic is succeeding in reducing the opioid crisis. And given everything we know about crime, it would be shocking if it did.
Classical theories of crime assumed that there were three factors of punishment that deterred people from committing a crime: swiftness, certainty, and severity. Modern social science has shown that the case for any of these is ambiguous and limited.
But to the extent that punishment can deter crime, it will only work if the would-be criminal is certain he'd be caught quickly and punished: certainty and swiftness. Increasing the severity of punishment, in other words, is the least effective lever a policymaker can pull.
This is definitely true when it comes to drugs; "there's no good evidence that tougher punishments or harsher supply-elimination efforts do a better job of driving down access to drugs and substance misuse than lighter penalties," my colleague German Lopez wrote last year, summarizing a 2014 report from Peter Reuter at the University of Maryland and Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago. "So increasing the severity of the punishment doesn't do much, if anything, to slow the flow of drugs."
That track record won't suddenly improve when the death penalty is added to the punishment mix. The deterrent effect of being sentenced to death, as opposed to a long prison sentence, is either so small it hasn't yet been captured in the research or it's totally nonexistent. And in the meantime, the death penalty as currently practiced in the US is anything butswift and certain: Getting sentenced to death sets off decades of appeals and litigation as lawyers try every possible avenue to get the sentence struck down on procedural grounds.
In a worst-case scenario, encouraging prosecutors to go for the death penalty by filing the most serious possible charges could result in fewer dealers even going to prison. Prosecutors already have a hard time convicting dealers in overdose deaths because it's hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was killed by a particular batch of drugs and that this particular dealer sold them to him. And it's even harder to prove that the dealer knew the drugs were lethal. Leave a reasonable doubt and the dealer could walk away with an acquittal.
In a best-case scenario, the last person who touched the drugs before the victim — the only person who can definitively be tied to the overdose — will be convicted and sentenced to death.
For all Trump and other officials talk about "big drug dealers," the fact of the matter is that most US drug enforcement treats everyone involved with moving drugs as serious criminals. It can be hard to tell the difference between a dealer and a courier, much less between a dealer at the bottom of the food chain and a kingpin.
A lot of drug dealers are also drug users — a 2017 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that "nearly a third of drug offenders (30 percent of state prisoners and 29 percent of jail inmates) said they committed the offense to get drugs or money for drugs."
In theory, drug users are supposed to be the people that Trump and his administration are trying to save from drugs. The way Trump paints it, users have to be saved from evil drug dealers. And because drug dealers are evil, the only way to curb them is to show them no mercy.
But the law, evidence, and logic all point to one conclusion: To the extent that anyone gets punished by a death penalty for drug dealers, it will be the people Trump is supposedly trying to help.