President Trump has reiterated his calls for the U.S. to impose the death penalty on drug dealers, praising countries like the Philippines, China and Singapore that apply capital punishment to drug traffickers. During a speech on Saturday, Trump recounted conversations with Chinese and Singaporean leaders who, he said, solved their countries’ drug problems by executing drug traffickers. Trump has also repeatedly expressed admiration for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and said he’s done an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” Last month, the International Criminal Court opened a preliminary investigation into accusations that Duterte had committed crimes against humanity by overseeing the killing of up to 8,000 people in his so-called war on drugs. We speak to Widney Brown, the managing director of policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Trump has reiterated his calls for the U.S. to impose the death penalty on drug dealers, praising countries like the Philippines, China and Singapore that apply capital punishment to drug traffickers. This is Trump speaking in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, on Saturday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Think of it. You kill 5,000 people with drugs, because you’re smuggling them in and you’re making a lot of money and people are dying, and they don’t even put you in jail. They don’t do anything. But you might get 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. You might get a year. But you’re not going to get—and then you wonder why we have a problem. That’s why we have a problem, folks. And I don’t—I don’t think we should play games.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During his speech, President Trump recounted conversations with Chinese and Singaporean leaders who, he said, solved their countries’ drug problems by executing drug traffickers. Trump has also repeatedly expressed admiration for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and said he’s done a, quote, “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” Last month, the International Criminal Court opened a preliminary investigation into accusations that Duterte has committed crimes against humanity by overseeing the killing of up to 8,000 people in his so-called war on drugs.
AMY GOODMAN: This is not the first time Trump has called for executing drug dealers. Earlier this month, he made similar remarks during a White House summit on the opioid crisis. On Friday, The Washington Post reported the Trump administration is studying new policy that could allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers.
For more, we’re joined by Widney Brown, the managing director of policy at the Drug Policy Alliance. Her recent piece for The Hill is headlined “Trump’s call for death penalty is the wrong response to drug war.”
Widney Brown, welcome to Democracy Now!
WIDNEY BROWN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what Trump called for this weekend.
WIDNEY BROWN: Well, basically, he’s saying he wants to execute people who bring drugs into the country or otherwise sell drugs. The problem is, supply-side initiatives have failed. We have a war on drugs that started in the 1970s. If it was a success, we wouldn’t be having an opioid overdose crisis today.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in the waning days of the Obama administration, there seemed to be a consensus on moving forward to end the war on drugs, to begin trying to reduce the prison population. But now the Trump administration clearly is going in the opposite direction.
WIDNEY BROWN: Exactly. I think Trump and also the attorney general are both going back to ways that we know have failed, which has led to mass criminalization in the U.S. It’s devastated communities of color. It’s been racially disproportionate in the ways that drug laws have been enforced. It’s been a failure.
And we actually know how to save lives. Let’s be clear: We have a crisis here. But we know how to save lives. And that’s by implementing harm reduction policies that allow people to use drugs safely, engage with them if they want to seek treatment, and move away from a criminal justice sector focus on the drugs to a public health sector focus.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to President Trump, again, speaking this weekend in Moon Township, Pennsylvania.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When I was in China—and other places, by the way—I said, “Mr. President, do you have a drug problem?” “No, no, no. We do not.” I said, “Huh, big country, 1.4 billion people, right? Not much of a drug problem.” I said, “What do you attribute that to?” “Well, uh, the death penalty.”
AMY GOODMAN: And then I want to go to Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte in his own words. In 2016, Duterte likened himself to Hitler.
PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is 3 million—what is it? Three million drug addicts, there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know, my victims, I would like to be all criminals.
AMY GOODMAN: So, there is the Philippine President Duterte comparing himself to Hitler. Last month, again, the International Criminal Court opened a preliminary investigation into accusations he committed crimes against humanity by overseeing the killing of up to 8,000 people in his war on drugs. President Trump praised both China and the Philippines.
WIDNEY BROWN: Exactly, which is appalling. You don’t kill your way out of a drug crisis. And what’s happening in the Philippines is you actually have death squads going around summarily rounding up or killing people based on allegations that they may use drugs. That is not how you solve a drug problem. And that we have a president who’s actually saying, “I want to emulate this behavior,” which—one of the things we’ve seen in the U.S. because of the war on drugs is the evisceration of due process and fair trial protections. So we’ve already got a problem in the U.S. The last thing you want to do is emulate things that even more undermine the rule of law here.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And isn’t the problem, especially in the United States, of drug trafficking these days, it’s even more so now—it’s not the illegal or banned substances. It’s the controlled substances, the chemicals, like—or the pills, that are being dispensed by pharmacists and doctors, in ways that are creating a massive epidemic across the country. So, this is—if you’re talking now about going after the drug dealers, you’re talking about going after the pharmacists and the doctors, not the people on the street selling drugs.
WIDNEY BROWN: Exactly. I’m not sure that’s what President Trump had in mind. But clearly we have an opioid crisis that started with prescription drugs. There’s been a failure to regulate. People who are on the drugs, they become addicted. They’re cut off from the drugs. Then they turn to street drugs that they can get.
And again, we’re not putting in place the harm reduction measures that we could: safe injection site, needle exchange, access to naloxone, which can save lives in the moment, plus engagement with treatment. And we do that—the reason we’re not doing that and are not—we are trying to do that. It needs to be done much more comprehensively. But when you stigmatize people because they use drugs, then it’s much harder to get them engaged with you. And that’s what we’re trying to do through harm reduction strategies.
AMY GOODMAN: Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith tweeted, “I’ll just reiterate that the state has no business killing people, and that the death penalty is a cornerstone of systemic racism. @POTUS isn’t talking about killing the Sacklers, or Big Pharma executives.” This weekend, you had also this mass protest at the Metropolitan, where people threw pills, because the Sackler supports the Met—the Sacklers support the Met, as well as many exhibits around the country. The Sacklers, of course, the makers of OxyContin—
WIDNEY BROWN: Mm-hmm, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —though they don’t put their name on that drug.
WIDNEY BROWN: So I think what you’ve got are two different issues. You’ve got: Does the U.S. government effectively regulate the pharmaceutical industry? Do they regulate both how things are distributed, and do they regulate how things are marketed? Are they paying attention to that? And I think what we’re seeing because of this crisis is the answer is a clear no.
But the focus, in terms of the war on drugs, is, as you say, not the pharmaceutical companies. It’s actually people who use and often small-time pushers, as well as some drug traffickers. Let’s be clear: There are all of those. But the racism issue is profound in the U.S. The disproportionate policing in communities of color has devastated those communities and led to mass criminalization of people in those communities. That’s not going to be addressed by the death penalty. The death penalty, universally, is being rejected. About 141 countries in the world no longer use the death penalty whatsoever. The U.S. has been moving away from use of the death penalty. Now we see Trump wanting to revive the death penalty, at the very time that we know how many people have been found factually innocent who were on death row. That should give anyone pause.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the example of Portugal and how it responded to its drug problem early in the 21st century?
WIDNEY BROWN: Yes. In 2001, Portugal had an overdose crisis—much smaller place, but comparable, in terms of the percent of the population, to what we’re having right now. And they made a radical decision to decriminalize all drugs. They set up dissuasion committees, where, basically, if you were found to be using drugs, you would go before this committee, and they would decide whether you needed treatment or whether your drug use was actually fine. As a result, their overdose rates plummeted. Their HIV seroconversion rates plummeted.
Now, to be clear, they have universal healthcare. They have treatment available to people. So, if you did that in the United States, you would not necessarily see all those positive outcomes. But the very act of decriminalizing means you would at least reduce the harms that are associated with criminalizing people. And those harms include everything from, of course, being incarcerated, but even if you’re not incarcerated, but under the control of the criminal justice system, access to housing, access to scholarships for higher education, being able to get a job, voter disenfranchisement. So, we actually see intense consequences as a direct result of criminalization itself. What we’d love to see are the benefits of actually healthcare treatment available to anyone.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end with the words of Raffy Lerma. He’s the award-winning photojournalist who documented President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called war on drugs. He came into our studios. He was winning an award here in New York. His life has been in grave risk as he goes out and photographs the killings on the streets, by military and vigilante paramilitary groups, of people they say are drug dealers. Raffy Lerma described the situation on the ground.
RAFFY LERMA: It’s really overwhelming, what’s happening in the Philippines right now. There, close to 14,000 people have been killed in this—the name of the drug war, and 4,000 of which have been claimed by police in police operations. They claim that they have killed 4,000 people. And the rest are unexplained killings, those they say that are deaths under investigation. And some of them are the vigilante killings. And, well, yes, so many people have been killed. … I can say most of the killings are poor, are the poor. I have also covered people like getting caught with millions of drugs’ worth, but they’re alive. They get due process. They go to court. They’re not dying. And these people, they get killed with 200 pesos’ worth of drugs. That’s around $4. That’s your life in the Philippines. It’s not fair.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the award-winning photojournalist Raffy Lerma, speaking to us in New York, has faced many death threats, as he goes out late at night on the streets and documents what he’s seeing across the Philippines. The president, Rodrigo Duterte, has compared himself to Hitler, proudly talks about, boasts about, the number of what he calls drug dealers killed. President Trump has supported what Rodrigo Duterte is doing.
As we wrap up, we want to thank Widney Brown, managing director of policy at the Drug Policy Alliance. And we’ll link to her piece in The Hill headlined “Trump’s call for death penalty is the wrong response to drug war.” Thanks so much for being with us.
WIDNEY BROWN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! When we come back, as the U.S. investigates Russia meddling with the U.S. elections, we’re going to take a look at U.S. history. We’ll speak with Stephen Kinzer, author of Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. Stay with us.