As I argued in a previous Wall Street International article there is increasing opposition to the Death Penalty from many, but not all, Democrats and libertarian Republicans. At the same time, however, President Donald Trump has countered the trend and argued in favor of the Death Penalty, particularly against drug dealers.
In March 2018, Trump officially called for the death penalty for drug dealers. He argued that "If we don't get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time… And that toughness includes the death penalty 1." Later in December 2018, Trump reiterated his support for the Death Penalty: "Last year over 77,000 people died from Fentanyl. If China cracks down on this 'horror drug,' using the Death Penalty for distributors and pushers, the results will be incredible! 2"
The question must be posed: Would Donald Trump also support the death penalty for the CEOs of major pharmaceutical companies who have been legally dealing opioids to the American population?
In the Supreme Court decision, Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008), the majority opinion left open the possibility of the death penalty for "Drug Kingpin Activity". Could the CEOs of major pharmaceutical companies be charged with “Drug Kingpin Activity”?
As I am against the Death Penalty, I am not arguing for the death penalty for CEOs who may have “legally” caused the deaths of thousands in the quest for greater profits. The Death Penalty will not bring justice to the individuals and families who suffered from synthetic opioid use. And the Death Penalty will not resolve the alienating and complex psychological, medical, and social issues that surround questions of drug use and the quest to better cope with, or “escape,” pain and suffering.
The problem is this: How to deal effectively with both kinds of “Drug Kingpins”—both illegal and legal? What form of political, social and judicial action will limit future deaths and damages? The Death Penalty will not solve the complex issues created by both drug demand and drug dealing. Other options should be considered.
In October 2017, President Trump declared a public health emergency over the opioid epidemic―but did not provide any additional funding. The opioid epidemic is, in large part, due to the fact that the CEOs of a number of pharmaceutical companies have acted like “Drug Kingpins” in the effort to boost the sales of legal opioid drugs prescribed by doctors3.
These synthetic drugs made by major multinational corporations can be stronger and even more dangerous than drugs sold on the street or they can be mixed with street drugs to make the latter more potent. Fentanyl (legally a Category II drug on the US government’s Controlled Substances List) is about 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin (which is a Category I drug on the US government’s Controlled Substances List).
In the US, in 2017, roughly 72,287 people died from drug overdoses, an increase of about 10% from 2016. Nearly 49,000 of those deaths were caused by opioids. In addition to heroin and other drugs, the synthetic opioid fentanyl alone killed roughly 29,000 people, with investigations still on going4. An estimated 1.7 million people in the United States suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers, and 652,000 suffered from a heroin use disorder, which are not mutually exclusive5.”
Some 1,900 lawsuits have been filed by US states, counties, and cities against synthetic opioid manufacturers. These lawsuits are, in part, a result of the fact that pharmaceutical companies, often backed by questionable or doctored scientific studies, had reassured the medical community throughout the 1990s and after that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers―even in the recognition that patients could abuse the use of those opioids6.
Doctors continued to prescribe these dangerous drugs, which have often been purchased, legally or illegally, in large quantities and which have then been given out to family and friends, and not necessarily sold on the street. Some opioids can be bought on the internet. China and Mexico appear to be the two major external sources of fentanyl that are illegally entering the US, whether by post or ports of entry7. Yet opioids can still be sold by prescription in the US as Category II drugs, including Fentanyl, Percocet, OxyContin, Percodan, and Oxymorphone.
Some of the pharmaceutical companies that produce these drugs have already settled out of court in multi-million dollar settlements. Members of the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, which makes the opioid OxyContin, are under criminal investigation8. One lawsuit against the firm, Johnson & Johnson, began at the end of March 20199. According to a star witness at the trial, J&J did everything it possibly could to get doctors to prescribe more and more opioids 10.” J&J, of course, pleads that it sought restraint. The results of the trial remain to be seen.
This epidemic of “legal” opioid drugs has been compounded with the epidemic of “illegal” drugs. The fact that states have made less addictive and less dangerous drugs like marijuana illegal (listed as a Category 1 drug which can mean severe penalties for possession) has enhanced the search by Drug Kingpins for more potent, more concealable, and more profitable, drugs in order to exploit the overall demand for drugs in the US and in the world. Marijuana is bulky and hard to hide; opioids and other drugs are not.
Even though President Trump himself tends to flip flop (as usual) on the drug issue, his essentially Christian Conservative administration has continued to support criminalization of drug use which has unjustly placed so many Americans in prison and destroyed so many lives. This is true despite current trends in favor of legalization of marijuana11, and despite the fact Trump himself had called for drug legalization in 1990 and considered the drug war a “joke12.”
There are political, social, and psychological aspects to the way American society has approached the use of drugs. The Nixon administration had hoped that its 1971 declaration of a “war on drugs” would work to break up the anti-Vietnam war and Black Power movements13. That “war on drugs” has now cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion, or roughly $3.3 billion annually to incarcerate people with drug related offenses14.
The domestic drug war has moreover resulted in a significant loss of civil liberties and destruction of lives and families15. The number of Americans arrested for possession reached 1.3 million arrests in 2015. Roughly one-fifth of the incarcerated population—or 456,000 individuals—has been serving time for a drug charge, with another 1.15 million people on probation and parole, often making it very difficult to find jobs while destroying families. Black Americans and Latinos have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war and are more likely to be arrested for drug related offenses than are white Americans16.
Marijuana, at a minimum, should be removed from the list of the Controlled Substances Act. The federal courts should clear the criminal records of those previously convicted of a cannabis-related offense. A number of Presidential candidates have backed marijuana legalization laws, including Presidential candidate, Senator Cory Booker, who introduced the Marijuana Justice Act in 201717, Elizabeth Warren18, Bernie Sanders19, and many others.
From a deeper sociological and psychological perspective, both the use of drugs as a means to “humanize” the death penalty (which represents legalized killing) as I discussed in my previous WSI post20, and the use of powerful opioids by doctors and psychiatrists as a legitimate and legal means to “kill” pain represent two sides of the same coin. Both indicate profound malaise in American society.
One could argue that much as American penal institutions have used the drugs of lethal injection to “escape” acknowledgement of the pain of those executed, American doctors and psychiatrists have also used legal opioids as a “quick fix”—in an effort to “escape” complex and inter-related social, economic, environmental, physical, and mental health problems—in addition to the problems associated with psychological and social alienation21.
I am not arguing that opioid overuse and misuse is the fault of the medical profession. There are many other political, social, economic, environmental and psychological factors involved. Here, for example, the general political failure to improve safety and health standards in the workplace and to combat differing forms of environmental pollution (including the general use of plastic which emits toxins when it break down in the environment), can lead to physical and mental hardships, and possible drug misuse.
The problem is this: Under the profit-oriented influence of major pharmaceutical corporations, synthetic opioids have been seen by medical professionals and other elites as a relatively “cheap” and “easy” way to deal with physical and mental hardships and pain or other medical problems that generally need long term and careful treatment.
At the same time, drugs in general have increasingly been seen by a significant portion of the population as a means to “escape” the depressing reality of social and economic injustices, outrageously low salaries as compared to CEOs, un- or under-employment, lack of adequate health insurance and pensions, job dissatisfaction, lack of personal fulfilment, and fears of a bleak future—and as a way to get “high” for instant gratification.
It should not be surprising that drug misuse is taking place in the relatively poorer and economically precarious regions throughout the USA. Opioid overdoses have recently increased in the major urban environments of 16 American states by 54 percent. And there has been a significant augmentation of opioid overdoses in the impoverished rust belt region of the Midwest―by as much as 70% in the period from July 2016 to September 201722. Some of this upsurge of overdoses may be a result of a general panic among users that such powerful drugs will be more difficult to obtain in the future as prescriptions are restricted and as the courts crack down on the big pharmaceutical companies. This has led people to seek illegal opioids from China, such as Fentanyl23.
An additional issue is the fact that many kinds of legal substances can be harmful―if overused and abused. There are many dangerous solvents and chemicals which can bought in commercial outlets and used as drugs. As child in the early 1960s, I remember the concern raised about children sniffing glue, and yet no one ever considered banning the sale of glue. Inhalants, including glue, poppers and fingernail polish, can cause significant respiratory problems. Chronic use of solvents can result in brain damage. Nor did anyone consider abolishing grain alcohol which teenagers mixed with punch. Now, anyone can purchase much more potent and dangerous illegal drugs, such as crack cocaine, crystal meth, and various designer drugs, as well as opioids, off the street—or mix their own chemicals.
The urge to get “high” evidently has complex social and psychological roots. Yet calls for abstinence tend to fall on deaf ears: The American Prohibition era certainly did not stop people from drinking and Mafia groups illegally filled the demand for alcohol and other illicit substances. Only an appeal to the “moderation” of pleasure in a Platonic or Epicurean sense―as opposed to a Cyrenaic sense of seeking instant gratification―might bring people to their senses and reduce the misuse of dangerous drugs and of other potentially harmful substances. The quest for instant gratification, particularly through the use of illegal, and potentially harmful, drugs, can never result in true pleasure as there is always a risk of negative side effects and health hazards in using such drugs.
The question as to how to punish, or in some way deal effectively, with white collar crime, which can directly or indirectly impact hundreds and thousands of people, has rarely been dealt with adequately or justly.
The issue is this: how is it possible for US states to continue to punish both dealers and users of illicit drugs, in some states jailing people for mere possession of marijuana (which is treated as a category I drug as if it were as dangerous as heroin!), when law enforcement has up until recently ignored the legal sale of dangerous prescription drugs that are potentially more deadly than some drugs sold on the street?
In opposing the death penalty for Drug Kingpins, I am also opposing the death penalty, if it were (dubiously) to be considered, for the CEOs of pharmaceutical companies who may have purposely sought to expand the sales of opioids in full knowledge of the dangers of those drugs―knowledge that the use of those drugs could kill. Nevertheless, the leadership of pharmaceutical companies must somehow pay the price for the damages caused.
Strong prison sentences, including life imprisonment in some cases for such CEOs, just as is the case for Drug Kingpins, should be considered, depending on the evidence provided. At the same time, jail sentences do not address the deeper problem. Other possible forms of “punishment” could include investing profits obtained by the sale of opioids by corporate giants, or from assets seized from mafias, toward public health services and to assist those harmed. Years of daily community service could be a form of “punishment” for some legal and illegal “Drug Kingpins” and their associates.
The deeper problem is to finds ways to reduce the demand for dangerous “legal” drugs by finding non-addictive substitutes, for example, or by encouraging alternative forms of medicine and therapy, while also making safer formerly “illegal” drugs more available, though regulated. Once again, the general principle should be “moderation”—since abstinence will not work.
Given the tensions between the Trump administration and states such as Colorado (which has made more than $1 billion in revenue since it legalized marijuana sales in 2014), the US will need to adopt a more creative and flexible policy that deals effectively with the crisis posed by both illegal drugs, such as marijuana, and legal drugs, such as opioids.
As I argued in World War Trump, this situation requires a new approach to drug policy in the USA that would legalize and better regulate relatively “less dangerous” drugs, while cracking down, or more strictly regulating, the use of the most “dangerous” and poisonous ones. Concurrently, public education campaigns are needed to warn of the dangerous consequences of the misuse and overuse of all forms of “drugs” and various substances, ranging from sugar, to cigarettes, to solvents, to alcohol, to marijuana, to cocaine, to heroin and opioids.
1 Dan Merica, Trump pushes death penalty for some drug dealers CNN (March 19, 2018).
2 Maegan Vazquez, Trump praises death penalty for Chinese fentanyl 'distributors and pushers' CNN (December 5, 2018).
3 Purdue Pharma’s Use of Hospital, Academic Ties Helped Fuel Opioid Crisis Union of Concerned Scientists. National Institute of Drug Abuse Opioid Overdose Crisis (January 2019).
4 The Guardian, US drug overdose deaths rose to record 72,000 last year, data reveals.
5 National Institute of Drug Abuse Opioid Overdose Crisis (January 2019).
6 Chris McGreal, Johnson & Johnson faces multibillion opioids lawsuit that could upend big pharma The Guardian (June 22, 2019).
7 Anthony Zurcher, Opioid addiction and death mail-ordered to your door BBC (February 22, 2018).
8 Joanna Walters, Sackler family members face mass litigation and criminal investigations over opioids crisis The Guardian (November 19, 2018).
9 CBS News Johnson & Johnson in the crosshairs of Oklahoma's opioid trial Jan Hoffman, Oklahoma Faces Off Against J & J in First Trial of an Opioid Maker New York Times (May 28, 2019).
10 Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, J&J ‘Did Everything’ to Push Opioids, Oklahoma Witness Says.
11 Justin McCarthy, Two in Three Americans Now Support Legalizing Marijuana Gallup Poll (October 22, 2018).
12 Jeremy Berke, Trump called for the legalization of all drugs in 1990 — but his cabinet signals a very different policy Business Insider (Dec 7, 2016).
13 Betsy Pearl and Maritza Perez, Ending the War on Drugs Center for American Progress (June 27, 2018).
14 Betsy Pearl, Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers Center for American Progress (June 27, 2018).
15 See excellent book, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2012).
16 Betsy Pearl, Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers Center for American Progress (June 27, 2018).
17 Kyle Jaeger, Where Presidential Candidate Cory Booker Stands On Marijuana Marijuana Moment (February 1, 2019).
18 Kyle Jaeger, Where Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren Stands On Marijuana, Marijuana Moment (December 31, 2018).
19 Kyle Jaeger, Where Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren Stands On Marijuana, Marijuana Moment (February 19, 2019).
20 Hall Gardner, Brain Storm.
21 See my analysis of the concept of alienation, in Hall Gardner, Alienation and the Prevention of War in Hall Gardner and Oleg Kobtzeff, (eds), The Ashgate Research Companion to WAR: Origins and Prevention (Ashgate, 2012).
22 National Institute of Drug Abuse Opioid Overdose Crisis, (January 2019).
23 Niko Kommenda, Erin Durkin and Lydia Smears, Why are more Americans than ever dying from drug overdoses?, The Guardian (November 21, 2018).