Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlines when to use death penalty on drug traffickers

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions issues a memo to U.S. attorneys in which he names drug-related statutes where the death penalty should be pursued.
  • "I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate," Sessions says.
  • President Donald Trump first advocated the death penalty against certain drug dealers in a speech on Monday.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday issued new guidance to federal prosecutors on how to apply the death penalty to numerous drug-related crimes.

Sessions advised federal prosecutors to utilize laws permitting capital punishment as a viable sentence, both in violent and non-violent cases.

In the memo sent to U.S. attorneys Wednesday morning, Sessions said that some of the "appropriate cases" to seek the death penalty include murder related to racketeering crimes, gun deaths occurring during drug trafficking crimes and murder related to criminal enterprise.

The memo also encouraged prosecutors to pursue capital punishment in cases involving "dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs."

According to the U.S. statutes, an "extremely large" quantity of drugs means distributing at least 600 times the amount of a given substance that would bring penalties of five to 40 years in prison.

The Trump administration has frequently addressed the ongoing American opioid crisis, which has claimed more than 64,000 lives in 2016 alone, according to Sessions.

The memo also proposed appointing an opioid coordinator in every U.S. district and expanding the use of data analysis tools from the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit.

Sessions' letter went into more detail, however, when describing the application of the death penalty in the fight against the drug crisis.

"I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation," Sessions said.

Trump's tough talk on drugs

The memo follows remarks from President Donald Trump on Monday calling for some drug dealers to be sentenced to death.

"We can have all the blue-ribbon committees we want, but if we don't get tough on drug dealers we're wasting our time. And that toughness includes the death penalty," Trump said in a speech in New Hampshire.

The statutes allowing prosecutors to pursue the death penalty are already embedded in U.S. law. But the 1994 provisions permitting the execution of certain drug traffickers — even those who have been involved in drug-related murders — has never been used, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

Still, Sessions said in a previous statement that the Justice Department under the Trump administration will "continue to aggressively prosecute drug traffickers and we will use federal law to seek the death penalty wherever appropriate."

Here is Sessions' Wednesday memo:

The opioid epidemic has inflicted an unprecedented toll of addiction, suffering, and death on communities throughout our nation. Drug overdoses, including overdoses caused by the lethal substance fentanyl and its analogues, killed more than 64,000 Americans in 2016 and now rank as the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. In the face of all of this death, we cannot continue with business as usual.

Drug traffickers, transnational criminal organizations, and violent street gangs all contribute substantially to this scourge. To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal. This includes designating an opioid coordinator in every district, fully utilizing the data analysis of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, as well as using criminal and civil remedies available under federal law to hold opioid manufacturers and distributors accountable for unlawful practices.

In addition, this should also include the pursuit of capital punishment in appropriate cases. Congress has passed several statutes that provide the Department with the ability to seek capital punishment for certain drug-related crimes. Among these are statutes that punish certain racketeering activities (18 U.S.C. § 1959); the use of a firearm resulting in death during a drug trafficking crime (18 U.S.C. § 924(j)); murder in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise (21 U.S.C. § 848(e)); and dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs (18 U.S.C. § 3591(b)(1)). I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation.

WATCH: Trump WH considering suing drug firms in opioid crisis