- The Washington Times
Sunday, March 18, 2018

President Trump on Monday plans to direct the Justice Department to seek the death penalty for opioid traffickers in certain cases and urge Congress to make it easier to impose mandatory minimum sentences on people who sell fentanyl or other drugs that can be deadly in trace amounts.

Mr. Trump will push the get-tough measures as part of a broad strategy to combat opioid abuse, including the start of a nationwide campaign to highlight the dangers of drug abuse and a push to slash the number of prescription opioid fills by one-third within three years.

He will outline the plan Monday in his first presidential visit to New Hampshire, where he won the 2016 Republican primary but lost in the general election to Hillary Clinton by a slim margin.

Mr. Trump declared opioid addiction to be a public health emergency this fall, though advocates have been waiting for him to follow up his tough talk with real action.

The president recently floated the idea of giving certain drug dealers the death penalty, saying the U.S. needs to crack down on traffickers like they do in other countries.

“You kill one person, you get the death penalty in many states or you get life in prison,” Mr. Trump said at a March 10 rally in Pennsylvania. “You kill 5,000 people with drugs because you’re smuggling them in and you’re making a lot of money and people are dying. And they don’t even put you in jail, they don’t do anything. But you might get 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, you might get a year … and then you wonder why we have a problem.

“I don’t think we should play games,” he said, telling the crowd it doesn’t matter whether his idea is popular.

It’s unclear which situations would prompt federal prosecutors to seek the ultimate penalty for drug dealers.

Senior White House officials said Sunday evening that the death penalty would be sought “when it’s appropriate under current law,” yet they could not offer any examples and referred questions to the Justice Department for its legal analysis.

The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Imposing the death penalty for drug trafficking would be a notable shift in U.S. jurisprudence. Under federal law, the death penalty is typically reserved for murder, espionage or the use of weapons of mass destruction resulting in death.

In 2008, the Supreme Court held that constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment barred the use of the death penalty in cases involving the rape of a child if the crime did not result in death or was not intended to do so.

Mr. Trump’s plan will likely spark pushback from Democratic lawmakers and public health professionals who say harsher penalties would invoke a failed “war on drugs” from decades past and stigmatize people in the grips of addiction.

Yet the White House said the Obama administration was too lax in enforcing drug laws against traffickers — particularly those who dealt fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is pouring into the heroin supply from abroad and causing a dramatic surge in overdoses.

Opioid-related overdoses killed 42,000 people in 2016, and early estimates suggest the problem worsened in 2017 and will surpass the AIDS epidemic’s toll at its height in the mid-1990s.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Mr. Trump wanted to highlight the epidemic in hard-hit New Hampshire, because he was moved by residents’ stories about opioid abuse during the campaign, even if the administration realizes the problem is nationwide.

“Obviously, this crisis impacts everyone everywhere,” she said.

To reduce the supply of foreign fentanyl, Mr. Trump wants to require advanced electronic data on 90 percent of packages that enter the U.S., so customs agents can target suspicious drug shipments.

The Postal Service receives data on some packages, but only private couriers such as UPS and FedEx provide it on every parcel.

Cutting off the supply of opioids is just one branch of the plan Mr. Trump will discuss in New Hampshire.

The president wants to screen every federal inmate for opioid addiction at intake so addicts can be treated and connected with recovery services.

He wants federal resources to assist states in expanding the use of overdose-reversing naloxone and medication-assisted treatment, which has a proven track record of success.

To reduce the number of pills prescribed, he wants 75 percent of opioid prescriptions reimbursed by federal health care programs to align with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other “best practices” within three years, and 95 percent within five years.

Mr. Trump also wants states to transition from their own prescription drug monitoring systems to a nationwide program so doctors can track patients’ habits across borders.

Meanwhile, Capitol Hill lawmakers from both parties are trying to put muscle behind Mr. Trump’s decision last fall to declare opioid addiction a public health emergency.

Congress struck a budget agreement that provides $6 billion to fight the opioid epidemic over this year and next.

The Energy and Commerce Committee plans this week to debate more than two dozen bills targeting the opioids crisis, including speeding approval of painkilling alternatives and linking emergency room patients with treatment after they overdose.

The panel will also consider legislation to let doctors know if patients have a history of addiction, to study how many teens are using injectable drugs and to boost efforts to interdict fentanyl, a synthetic opioid blamed for the recent spike in overdose deaths.

All told, some 25 bills will be on the calendar during a two-day hearing.

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