The Long, Orange Arm of Justice: Death Penalty for Drug Dealers

The conversation about drug addiction was just starting to change its tone when Donald Trump pushed the electric chair right into the center of it. 

More people were starting to think about addiction as more of a disease than a crime. People were linking the opioid crisis not just to drug dealers, but also to pharmaceutical companies and overprescription by doctors and hospitals. 

People were talking about the prison industrial complex and the disproportionate number of men of color incarcerated and on death row. We were not entirely enlightened on these matters, but the conversation was slowly moving in more-enlightened directions.

And then Trump, who reserves his greatest admiration for dictatorships with poor human rights records, decided to actively propose the death penalty for drug dealers, basing this idea on policies from countries like the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.

His plan also included measures to prescribe more non-addictive painkillers, which is a solid idea. The problem is, Trump is a privileged white man with a demonstrable shortage of patience, humility, empathy, or sympathy for anyone. Therefore, whatever his intentions, he can’t help but bring measures like walls, deportation, defunding, revoking health care and, apparently, execution into his Mr. Fix It Toolbox.

When I see anyone pushing for the harshest possible punishments and who would also never be on the receiving end of them, I cringe for the sheer, heartless stupidity of it. 

Trump has long been part of the storytelling machine that wrongly paints immigrants, people of color, and the inner city in such a negative light that it is easy for the privileged to see the most oppressed people in our country as a threat. A threat to what? Rich, white kids’ trust funds?

That is not to say drug dealers do not pose a threat to the nation. But many drug dealers are not flashy, powerful kingpins, they’re just people trying to score some extra cash. They may be addicts themselves. They may not be. They often belong to a vulnerable population to begin with: the majority of those imprisoned for drug trafficking in this country are Black and Hispanic. Many did not begin life with the money or family and societal support that would have propelled them in a better direction. These are not by any means the only drug dealers — you can find them in every economic bracket and race — but they are the ones likelier to find themselves in prison and, if Trump had his way, on death row.

So the addicts and dealers that most commonly filter through the justice system are poor, and statistically, of color. But law enforcement officials are aware that the most vulnerable citizens are not the only dealers or addicts: middle-aged white business executives may be heroin addicts, too, but they have the money and social capital to keep themselves out of the courtrooms and prisons.

When Trump paints drug dealers one-dimensionally as bad people, the people who will suffer the most from that condemnation are often those who have few resources to defend themselves. That is, after all, who usually ends up in prison, and who typically makes it to death row. While more white people are on death row than black people, just barely, which doesn’t make a lot of sense when black Americans comprise just 13 percent of the population. Black Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison system of a country that makes little or no effort to offer the same education and opportunities to people of color. You can read more about prison stats in a 2014 NPR article.

Not only are the most vulnerable populations set up to suffer most from a potentially brutal policy, but they also end up becoming the face of the national epidemic, even though they are just a fraction of a far bigger problem. It also perpetuates the lie that minorities and the poor are disproportionately responsible for drug crime — or any crime — and therefore, threats to the well-being and the good of God-fearing rich and middle-class whites, whose own crimes are hidden by money or encoded into policies.

All of this is undoubtedly fine with Trump, who appears to wholeheartedly believe this anyway. He was a vocal advocate of putting the Central Park Five, black teen boys, behind bars, and then never said a word when they were later exonerated.

Trump’s vision of drug reform means increased danger to vulnerable populations, whose existences are often criminalized long before crimes are committed. And it comes from a man who is inoculated by his race and wealth against the suffering he is quick to wish on others under the guise of problem solving. 

Instead, we need to continue to strive to better understand the people involved in the world of drug trafficking and addiction, and then proceed with compassion. Instead of demonizing criminals, we need to make them our responsibility, to help provide opportunities and support to children and adults alike, free and incarcerated, so that people who may not have had much hope gain some access to the American dream we are so fond of promoting. We need to look at drug addiction as an illness, not just a bad choice. People are not making choices if they are not aware there are any.

And the death penalty? That belongs in our national museum of historic, collective shame, but not in our conversation on drugs.