As Americans, we're used to having our elected leaders killing people we've never met in foreign countries around the world. It's sad, but that's the way it is, and it's been going on, nonstop, for longer than about half of all Americans have been alive. We're somewhat less used to having them advocate policies that will add to the death toll here in America, but whether we're aware of it or not, that's exactly what we saw on Thursday.
Reports indicate that His Royal Orangeness is set to reveal a new plan to combat the opioid epidemic with a number of measures. Some of these aren't completely insane, such as devoting more federal funding to drug treatments through Medicaid and testing in corrections facilities with an eye towards steering inmates into treatment. But among the proposals is another that is, quite honestly, bat-guano crazy: instituting a death penalty for convicted drug dealers in cases in which the sale of drugs can be tied to one or more deaths.
[A note to my fellow Libertarians: Yes, I did go there and give nodding agreement to government spending, specifically Medicaid funding for drug treatment. Yes, I know that taxation is theft, and that therefore Medicaid spending of any kind is the proceeds of theft. I get that. In a perfect world, there would be other ways of funding this treatment without forcing the money out of the pockets of unwilling taxpayers. But for right now, this spending has two things to recommend it. It isn't going to put people behind bars, destroy underprivileged neighborhoods, or shoot minorities. And it will likely be cheaper than law enforcement "answers" to the problem -- probably a lot cheaper. So while it's sitting still for theft, it's also reducing the amount of theft. Not a good answer; merely a better answer than the one we have now.]
In suggesting this measure, our Narcissist-in-Chief is playing to his demographic, seeking the applause of the MAGAbots who hang on his every word and cheer him at his ongoing campaign rallies. Like their leader, these folks feel a lot more than they think, and wreaking fatal revenge on drug dealers feels intensely satisfying. But there are several problems with this idea.
First of all, the drug trade, because it is illegal, is already in the hands of the most ruthless, violent, amoral people in the world. If they had any scruples about hurting or killing their fellow humans, they wouldn't be in that line of work to begin with. But there is this one mild check on their violent tendencies: if caught, they know they'll do serious prison time (unless, of course, they can turn in someone higher up on the food chain who the authorities want even more), but they also know that they are likely to continue converting O2 into CO2, and they know that they'll probably, some day, get out. But add in a death penalty just for trafficking, and the equation changes. At that point, they have no reason not to take violence to the highest level. In fact, they have an incentive to do so. Users? After the first one, the rest are free. Competitors? Nuc 'em! Serves them right for cutting in on your territory. Cops? Witnesses? Innocent bystanders? Kill 'em all! Dead men tell no tales! And they can only hang you once.
"But this will discourage people from dealing drugs at all! No one wants to die!" You think? I think you're wrong. These folks don't believe they'll be caught, so the deterrence is practically non-existent. Don't take my word for this. Ask any narc.
Here's another problem. A lot of drug dealers wear gang colors or motorcycle club jackets and carry semiautomatic weapons. But others wear white lab coats and carry prescription pads. Some opioid addicts become addicted as the result of legitimate and responsible medical treatment, and then find themselves unable to break the addiction. And there are some folks with medical degrees who are not as ethical or responsible as they ought to be, and who will prescribe drugs to make their "patients" feel better. Think back to some of the more recent celebrity deaths related to drug use. How many of them died from drugs they bought on the street? And how many died from drugs they purchased legally with a prescription from a medical professional? This plan won't address that problem at all.
And there's one more problem. It ain't a-gonna work. It ain't a-gonna reduce the amount of drugs out there on the streets or, in the long run, save the life of a single addict. A few years ago, I heard a speaker, a retired police captain, speaking on behalf of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). He explained the inevitable cycle whenever a major drug dealer is taken off the streets. As he told it, for a few days, there is less of the product out on the streets -- but just for a few days. Then, there is a period of time in which there is a sharp uptick in the violence associated with the trade, as various aspirants vie to fill the gap in the food chain. Finally, and after a surprisingly short time, everything is just exactly the same as it was before that drug kingpin was caught. His place has been taken by someone else, and the show goes on. The sad fact is that there is an inexhaustible supply of villains ready to supply the demand for these dangerous drugs.
I predict that if the President's plan passes, and that is, I am pleased to say, by no means certain, you may see 20 or 30 drug dealers executed each year, starting in about 15 years, after all of their appeals have run out. And assuming, of course, that in the meantime, capital punishment isn't abolished completely. But I also believe that we'll see 2000 to 3000 more killings, every year, related to drug trafficking and starting the year that this proposal is passed and signed into law. It will be impossible to say with confidence that this killing or that killing wouldn't have happened without the new law. It may not even be possible to point to statistics and say that there are so many more killings than there would have been otherwise. There are too many variables for certainty.
But we'll be able to say this with certainty: there will still be opioid drugs on the streets. People will still abuse them. And whether we execute a few drug dealers or not, too many of those abusers will die.