Trump: Execute All the Big Drug Dealers

The President would like to copy Singapore's zero-tolerance policy. The US Constitution stands in his way.

The President would like to copy Singapore’s policy of executing narcotics traffickers, Axios reports.

In Singapore, the death penalty is mandatory for drug trafficking offenses. And President Trump loves it. He’s been telling friends for months that the country’s policy to execute drug traffickers is the reason its drug consumption rates are so low.

“He says that a lot,” said a source who’s spoken to Trump at length about the subject. “He says, ‘When I ask the prime minister of Singapore do they have a drug problem [the prime minister replies,] ‘No. Death penalty’.”

  • But the president doesn’t just joke about it. According to five sources who’ve spoken with Trump about the subject, he often leaps into a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty.
  • Trump tells confidants a softer approach to drug reform — the kind where you show sympathy to the offenders and give them more lenient sentences — will never work.
  • He tells friends and associates the government has got to teach children that they’ll die if they take drugs and they’ve got to make drug dealers fear for their lives.
  • Trump has said he would love to have a law to execute all drug dealers here in America, though he’s privately admitted it would probably be impossible to get a law this harsh passed under the American system.
  • Kellyanne Conway, who leads the White House’s anti-drug efforts, argues Trump’s position is more nuanced, saying the president is talking about high-volume dealers who are killing thousands of people. The point he’s making, she says, is that some states execute criminals for killing one person but a dealer who brings a tiny quantity of fentanyl into a community can cause mass death in just one weekend, often with impunity.

The substance: Trump may back legislation requiring a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for traffickers who deal as little as two grams of fentanyl. Currently, you have to deal forty grams to trigger the mandatory five-year sentence. (The DEA estimates that as little as two milligrams is enough to kill people.)

  • Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, and much of it is manufactured in Chinese labs. It can be lethal in extremely small doses. Of the 64,000 people who died of drug overdoses in 2016, more than 20,000 overdosed on synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse.

Between the lines: Conway told me this kind of policy would have widespread support. “There is an appetite among many law enforcement, health professionals and grieving families that we must toughen up our criminal and sentencing statutes to match the new reality of drugs like fentanyl, which are so lethal in such small doses,” she said.

  • “The president makes a distinction between those that are languishing in prison for low-level drug offenses and the kingpins hauling thousands of lethal doses of fentanyl into communities, that are responsible for many casualties in a single weekend.”

“The president makes a distinction between those that are languishing in prison for low-level drug offenses and the kingpins hauling thousands of lethal doses of fentanyl into communities, that are responsible for many casualties in a single weekend.”

Leaving aside it being yet another case of the ostensible leader of the free world eager to pattern himself after an autocrat, the notion that drug kingpins are more dangerous to society than the average murderer is understandable. Certainly, Trump isn’t the first American politician to want to kill “drug kingpins,” however we might define that. And, while the war on drugs has demonstrably not worked, I suppose it’s arguable that it might if it were more draconian.

While I could see this policy being enacted by this Congress, we have over four decades of Supreme Court precedent that such a penalty would be unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. As always, Findlaw’s Annotated Constitution is my go-to lay resource:

In Coker v. Georgia, 119 the Court held that the state may not impose a death sentence upon a rapist who does not take a human life. 120 The Court announced that the standard under the Eighth Amendment was that punishments are barred when they are ”excessive” in relation to the crime committed. A ”punishment is ‘excessive’ and unconstitutional if it (1) makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment and hence is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering; or (2) is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime.” 121


Applying the Coker analysis, the Court ruled in Enmund v. Florida 124 that death is an unconstitutional penalty for felony murder if the defendant did not himself kill, or attempt to take life, or intend that anyone be killed. While a few more States imposed capital punishment in felony murder cases than had imposed it for rape, nonetheless the weight was heavily against the practice, and the evidence of jury decisions and other indicia of a modern consensus similarly opposed the death penalty in such circumstances. Moreover, the Court determined that death was a disproportionate sentence for one who neither took life nor intended to do so. Because the death penalty is a likely deterrent only when murder is the result of premeditation and deliberation, and because the jus tification of retribution depends upon the degree of the defendant’s culpability, the imposition of death upon one who participates in a crime in which a victim is murdered by one of his confederates and not as a result of his own intention serves neither of the purposes underlying the penalty. 125 In Tison v. Arizona, however, the Court eased the ”intent to kill” requirement, holding that, in keeping with an ”apparent consensus” among the states, ”major participation in the felony committed, combined with reckless indifference to human life, is sufficient to satisfy the Enmund culpability requirement.”

Additionally, long before those cases, the Court struck down numerous statutes which provided for the automatic application of the death penalty, including for murdering police officers.

The composition of the Court has of course changed over time and there has been a tendency over the last two decades or so to streamline executions by eliminating endless appeals over procedural matters. And they have shown little sympathy for the notion that those who are mentally incompetent shouldn’t be executed. Still, there has been no indication that they have any interest in reversing the now-longstanding rule that capital punishment can only be imposed for murder—preferably murder with aggravating factors.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark Ivey says:

    “Trump tells friends and associates that the government has got to teach children that they’ll die if they take drugs and they’ve got to make drug dealers fear for their lives.”


  2. mattb says:

    In addition to drawing inspiration from Singapore, it’s worth noting how this approach sounds like that of Rodrigo Duterte. Given Trump’s past praise for the President of the Philippines, that’s to be expected.

    I also wonder what constitutes a “executable Drug Dealer” and if unethical pain doctors and prescription farms will count (considering that the over prescription of opioids are what created the demand for fentanyl in the first place.

  3. KM says:

    Considering how many meth makers and dealers there are in rural America, this is Trump straight up saying to his voters he wants to kill you. Oh sure, he might say he’s only after “the big ones” but in reality it’s the little guys that make the system work. You’re the ones that are going to get caught the most and you’re the ones who are going to freaking DIE if El Trumpo gets his way. This isn’t some hypothetical inner city thug he’s threatening; these are real Americans who probably got started doing this to make money to survive.

    Ignore the fact that POTUS wants to expand the death penalty to an activity that can be have widely varied interpretations as @Mattb noted. Ignore that he wants to expand capital punishment when most of the country is decidedly not in favor of that. Drug dealing is an economic crime – one that both parties engage in willingly. It is violent in that it is violence one chooses to do to oneself, regardless of one’s agency or addiction status. You don’t choose to be murdered, you do choose to take the drug that can kill you even if it’s not your intention. Trump’s reference to them being serial killers *completely* ignores the fact that said victims *asked* for what killed them and removes all culpability from the drug takers themselves. It’s like calling gun store owners serial killers because they sell guns and those guns kill school kids; it forces blame up the chain and away from the point where we can really affect things as a society. The addict will always find another outlet as that’s the nature of addiction. Killing dealers isn’t going to do a thing but raise street prices (commensurate to risk) and force addicts to do more desperate things to get their fix.

  4. Kelvin1 says:

    @mattb: A good start would be big dealers caught shipping any amount over our border

  5. Kathy says:

    This from someone who regards valid accusations of abuse and sexual assault to be unfair and destructive.

  6. Slugger says:

    When the weather is good, I stop at a coffee shop with outdoor seating when taking the morning walk with my dog. There is a guy in his seventies who sometimes gives me his opinions on things. Executing drug dealers, a wall on the Mexican border, and teachers with guns are the sort of stuff he says. I’ve just been giving him a bland smile and pretending to tend to my dog when this guy talks. In the future I will listen more carefully since he is channeling the highest levels of government.

  7. CSK says:

    @mattb: @KM:

    You premised your comments on the assumption that Trump thinks through what he says before he says it. He doesn’t; he just blurts out whatever comes into his head.


    Yes, but no one’s accusing Trump of dealing drugs.

  8. Timothy Watson says:

    I’m all for executing the corporate officers at Purdue Pharma and McKesson Corporation, but I doubt that who is Trump is talking about.

  9. Not the IT Dept. says:

    George Carlin had a great routine on fighting drugs: bring back the death penalty but none of this wimpy injection stuff – CRUCIFIXION! Required viewing during half-time on Monday night football. And since the death penalty only works if you’re afraid to die, you don’t go after the dealers who are already killing each other over $100 debts but the BANKERS who launder the drug money.


  10. PJ says:

    edit: wrong thread.

  11. Hal_10000 says:

    Boy, just when you think this Administration can’t get any dumber, they manage to break through to a new sub-level.

  12. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    Just in passing, I will note that it’s probably easier to “make people afraid” when your country is 279 square miles–or 3% of the size of metropolitan Seattle. South Korea–roughly the size of Western Washington (I’m using comparative known distances for this claim, so I may be a little off)–also has significantly better success at controlling drugs. In this case, size does matter.

    …I also wonder what constitutes a “executable Drug Dealer” and if unethical pain doctors and prescription farms will count.

    Is it possible that Trump is really not interested in controlling drugs at all, but rather sizing up a potential untapped source for “investors” in his flagging real estate “empire?”

  13. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Hal_10000: The Marianas Trench of idiocy.

  14. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Trump: Execute all the big [Black and/or Mexican] Drug Dealer.

    I filled in the implied portions for accuracy. You’re welcome.