Drugs and Death Penalties

March 13, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s a sure sign of desperation when a politician calls for the death penalty for drug dealing.

Trump is basically admitting that his administration has no idea how to solve the drug problem.

Two hundred fifty years ago, Cesare Beccaria argued that of the three elements of punishment – certainty, swiftness, and severity – severity is the least effective. All the subsequent research has proven him right. But certainty and swiftness are hard to increase; severity is easy. Just pass some laws imposing long sentences, mandatory sentences, life sentences, and of course, death. When politicians call for the death penalty what they are saying is, “We don’t know how to catch very many of these guys, and it takes a long while before they are actually sentenced, so when we do catch one of them, we’re going to show him how pissed off we are.”

Draconian punishments may be very good for expressing the frustration and anger of law-abiding people, and Trump is very good at playing to those emotions. But as for the practical effects, executions are unlikely to have much of an impact on crime. What was true in in the crack crisis of the 1980s is still true: there already is in fact a death penalty for drug dealers. It’s just not administered by the state. It’s administered by rival drug dealers. And compared with any death penalty the state might impose, it is carried out with far greater frequency and swiftness.

President Reagan was fond of saying that in the sixties we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won. He was factually wrong. But if he had made the statement about the war on drugs that the government waged in the following decades, he’d have been closer to the truth. Those years when drugs were winning the war also gave us the spectacle of politicians falling all over themselves to pass harsher and harsher drug laws. Conservative politicians them sounded very much like Trump today. And like Trump today, many of them, perhaps, thought that in this way they were “doing something” about drugs. Of course, what they were more certain of was that they were doing something about getting re-elected.

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