The War on Drugs is a complex ordeal with a far-reaching and profound impact on society. While citizens buckle under the weight of drug crimes and addiction, politicians hijacked the theme to project a tough-on-crime image to the public while doing little to solve the problems.
Last week, President Trump joined a long line of his predecessors when he held a War on Drugs speech of his own. “We’re wasting our time if we don’t get tough with drug dealers, and that toughness includes the death penalty,” he told an audience in New Hampshire on March 19. “The ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty.”
His words echoed earlier statements of support for dictator Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, who has been waging a brutal war on drug dealers and users since he came to power in June of 2016. Dubbed Operation Double Barrel, Duterte’s war has resulted in the extrajudicial execution of more than 12,000 people accused of using and selling drugs across the Philippines.
Trump praised Duterte’s crackdown, saying he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”. Duterte’s “unbelievable job” and death penalty, however, are executed on the streets by his police force and are based purely on a basis of kill first, ask questions later, outraging human rights groups.
“Maybe our country is not ready for that, it’s possible, it’s possible,” Trump went on in his New Hampshire speech. “Personally, I can’t understand that.”
Author Seth Ferranti, a former drug kingpin who served decades behind bars for his infraction, is not surprised by Trump’s call for the death penalty. “Trump’s recent declaration that he’s thinking about introducing the death penalty for drug dealers harkens back to the Get Tough on Crime and War on Drugs era that I thought we had moved onward from in this medical marijuana world we live in nowadays,” he tells Gangsters Inc. “But with drug hardliners like Jeff Sessions, who never met a prison he didn’t like, Trump’s philosophy change should have been expected.”
In the end, though, Ferranti doesn’t view this as a genuine policy change, but rather as a big publicity stunt. “It’s just a ploy to detract from something else he has in the works,” he explains. “This is taking us back to the 1980s mentality. When I got out after serving multiple decades because of the War on Drugs I thought the charade was over. I mean, we had legal marijuana. They were conducing trials using LSD as a medicine. It seemed everything had made a 180 degree turn. I think all of these recent announcements are just rhetoric until they pass the laws.”
Ferranti also notes that prosecutors already have been charging some drug dealers with murder when their clients overdose. In Florida, individuals charged with providing cocaine, heroin or fentanyl to a person who dies from using said drug can also be charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to either life in prison or death. “That is crazy too,” Ferranti says. “No one charges Chevrolet when someone wrecks their Camaro and dies.”
Apart from these state laws, the federal death penalty is already available for limited drug-related offenses, including violations of the drug kingpin provisions of federal law. It is unknown whether Trump has plans for legislation to expand use of the death penalty for federal drug crimes, but his words certainly seem to hint at that.
Tony Moreno spent over 30 years in the Los Angeles Police Department, working at the special problems unit, gangs, organized crime, narcotics, homicide, various detective squads and Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH). After his retirement he wrote several books including Lessons From A Gang Cop and Cops in America: Dealing with the “Ferguson Effect”.
You may know Moreno better by his nickname. “While assigned to the Department's Citywide Gang Detail from 1982 through 1986, I was nicknamed ‘Pacman’ by the gang members in south-central Los Angeles because of the yellow Plymouth Fury I drove during those five years,” he tells Gangsters Inc. “Due to my reputation and work in the area of gangs, my nickname “Pacman” and a replica yellow Plymouth Fury I drove were used in the storyline of the classic gang movie Colors, starring Robert Duvall and Sean Penn.”
Moreno has seen what drugs to a community. “When you think about what a true drug dealer does, he or she poisons the community and creates a trail of violence, death and misery so that they can prosper financially,” Moreno explains. “It’s a truly disgusting and far-reaching crime.”
As such, he understands President Trump’s sentiment, he says. “But it’s also too easy for people to look the other way or make excuses on this issue because so many Americans are affected by it,” he adds. “President Obama pardoned drug dealers before he left office and there wasn’t much outrage over it. When you think about us as a society that releases people from prison who have actually killed other human beings, then I can’t see drug dealers being put to death. After all, to some people, they are considered non-violent criminals and in most cases, we don’t even put convicted killers to death.”
The recent opioid crisis has painted politicians in a corner, though. For decades they were lobbied successfully by rich pharmaceutical companies pushing their prescription painkillers on the public. With big donations to politicians, these companies bought a free market to sell their drug of choice. As more doctors prescribed patients with these painkillers, problems quickly arose and spun out of control.
Though marijuana is often described as a gateway drug, prescription painkillers like OxyContin proved a far deadlier guide into the world of drug overdoses. Once prescription drugs became too expensive, addicts moved on to heroin, fentanyl or other street drugs.
The combined death rate from using these opioids – from painkillers to heroin and fentanyl – came to 42,000 people in 2016 in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After having given the pharmaceutical companies such a free reign, politicians now have to flex their anti-crime muscles for the public, which can see and experience the devastation of the opioid crisis all around them. Enter: The death penalty.
Death around the world
A 2017 investigation by Harm Reduction International (HRI), a drug-focused NGO, found that 33 countries impose the death penalty for drug smuggling. Its 2017 report states that: “Between January 2015 and December 2017, at least 1,320 people are known to have been executed for drug-related offences - 718 in 2015; 325 in 2016; and 280 in 2017. These estimates do not include China, as reliable figures continue to be unavailable for the country.”
Furthermore, it states that: “Between 2015 and 2017, executions for drug offences took place in at least five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Singapore.”
That last country, Singapore, is another favorite of Trump. He points out that countries like Singapore have fewer issues with drug addiction because they severely punish those who manufacture and distribute the illegal product.
Trump’s support for the death penalty is based on the idea that tougher laws and sentences will work as a preventive measure. However, there is no evidence such harsh penalties work even in those countries where the death penalty is actively handed out.
Iran has been the world’s top executioner for drug offences by far, with at least 1,176 executions carried out since January 2015, HRI reports. Yet that hasn’t stopped the flow of heroin through its streets.
China is another place where drug dealers are executed, but that has done little to stop organized crime and gangs alike trafficking and dealing in drugs. It has, however, given Chinese authorities an effective tool in dealing with opponents.
“China’s anti-crime campaigns are problematic because they can easily double as partisan purges, such as the targeting of political rivals during the anti-mafia drive of former Chongqing party czar Bo Xilai,” writes Maya Wang, a China Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “So it is a worrying sign that China’s top court announced that those who ‘threaten political security’ would be targeted alongside with drug kingpins, loan sharks, and other types of criminals in this nationwide campaign.”
When looking at the death penalty, it is interesting to note that many of the countries that are hailed as prime examples of its success are severely lacking in freedom and democracy. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia all have executed drug dealers. Each country has its own difficulties with freedom – be it the democratic governmental process, a free economy or freedom of the press.
The fact that these countries have had varying degrees of success in stomping out drug groups then can be found more in the control the oppressive State has over everyday life and less in the death penalty.
Back in the United States of America, the story is different. This is a democracy where freedom is a citizen’s right. Where the press has the freedom to investigate and report the truth. What impact could the death penalty have here?
“I don’t think it will deter anyone,” Ferranti says adamantly. “No one thinks they will get caught or that it will happen to them.”
“I don’t think it would work,” Moreno agrees. “First of all, you’d have to determine and define who or what is a major drug dealer. I have seen instances where the so-called leader isn’t the actual boss or top man. They are put in the position as the face of the gang or organization but they aren’t really calling the shots. A smart top man will insulate himself from the illicit business as best as he can. Secondly, I believe that many of the people who are responsible for much of the drugs coming into the United States are not actually here in the country themselves. It’s a tribute to our country’s law enforcement that these bosses like to stay away, but it makes the job that much harder.”
The question regarding who is targeted also puzzles Ferranti, who is afraid the brunt of the crackdown will fall on those who already live on the fringes. “Like always America wants to punish the small guy in the food chain while Big Pharma gets away scot-free,” he says. “Big Pharma is the reason we are in the midst of a terrible opioid epidemic in this country. But no one is calling for their heads. Why not?”
As happened with the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, he fears minorities will get hit the hardest. Ferranti: “Black and brown colored people have always been the targets in America.”
Moreno doesn’t see things that negatively. “Hopefully, it would target whoever is responsible for most of the drugs coming into a given community or city. I can’t see race or ethnicity being a major concern because whoever is poisoning the black or Latino communities needs to be stopped, even if they are black or Latino, themselves. After all, you would be trying to save these communities from the people poisoning them, not persecute the people.”
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