When President Donald Trump announced this week that the Department of Justice was going to seek the death penalty in some drug trafficking offenses, people might have thought he was just blowing off some steam. He’s having a stressful week after all.
At a rally earlier this month, that dude Trump mused out loud about potential new penalties for drug crimes. “Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty — and by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do.” He also waxed philosophically about our country’s justice system, saying, “If you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty. These people can kill 2,000, 3,000 people and nothing happens to them.”
But all that was just talk until Thursday, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent out another fun little memo. Sessions is known at this point for his quirky memos, like the one removing all federal protections for state-legal cannabis operations. This new memo continues that lighthearted spirit by adopting a new attitude toward drug dealing in the Justice Department.
Part of that new attitude is to “include the pursuit of capital punishment in appropriate cases.” Sessions isn’t passing any new laws, or even pushing them. He cites older, largely forgotten, laws already on the books which allow for capital punishment in cases involving “extremely large quantities of drugs.”
While this big talk is directed toward opioid dealers, the law mentioned could actually apply to the dealer of nearly any federally banned narcotic, including cannabis. The measure was signed back in 1994 by Bill Clinton, in the crack epidemic years right around the same time he imposed mandatory minimum sentencing. It allows for the death penalty for anyone found in possession of an “extremely large quantity of drugs.” For cannabis, the official threshold to qualify is 60,000 plants or more than 60,000 kilograms of a substance containing cannabis.
But in the 24 years since that law was signed, not a single person has been put to death in this country for dealing drugs. In fact, the federal government hasn’t executed anyone at all since George W. Bush’s first term. And if the federal government keeps slowing their role, then Trump isn’t going to kill any drug dealers anytime soon. And then he will be sad.