Trump wants the death penalty for opioid dealers. Experts say that won’t help

War on drug dealers.
War on drug dealers.
Image: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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Opioids are the first cause of accidental death in the US. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), opioid-related overdose deaths have sharply risen in the recent years. In 2016 alone, 64,000 people in the US died of overdose, primarily due to opioid use.

Donald Trump has declared the country’s opioid epidemic a national emergency, but he seems determined to ignore experts advice to treat drug addiction as a health problem, rather than a criminal issue. Instead, he is reportedly gearing up to crack down on illegal opioid sales with a dramatic step: According to Politico, the president is finalizing a plan to tackle the opioid crisis which would include the death penalty for opioid dealers, alongside other interventions such as changing government reimbursement policies to limit access to painkillers.

This aggressive strategy would resemble Richard Nixon’s 1970s “war on drugs.” Pushed forward by the Ronald Reagan administration, the war on drugs tried to combat the crack cocaine by closing down the illegal drug market, both internationally and domestically. But that approach failed to reduce the number of people using drugs and experiencing health consequences (including lethal) and led to a rise in other epidemics, such as hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS, since criminalizing drug possession favored habits such as reusing syringes. (It also caused the US prison population to balloon, especially among African-Americans, a result which one Nixon aide later claimed was intentional.)

Today, most experts say that drug policies should focus on treating addiction and regulating the drug markets, rather than focusing only on eliminating drug supply. The most effective way to prevent drug-related deaths is by treating addiction, show data from the National Institute of Drug AddictionIn the case of opioids, this can be achieved through prescription treatments like Naxalone or Methadone.

According to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the best way to reduce the public health damages created by drugs is by decriminalizing drug possession and drug-use, and adopting alternatives to jail for low-level dealers. Of course, illegal heroin sales and dealers are only a part of the US opioid problem; prescription opioids are consumed at an exponential rate in the US, compared to the rest of the world.