Jeff Sessions tells federal prosecutors how they can use the death penalty against drug traffickers

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Donald Trump’s Justice Department has outlined how federal prosecutors can apply the death penalty to certain drug-related crimes, even as public health experts warn that such “tough on crime” policies may only exacerbate the opioid epidemic. 

In a memo sent to US attorneys, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that some of the “appropriate cases” to seek the death penalty include murder related to racketeering crimes, gun deaths occurring during drug trafficking crimes and murder related to criminal enterprise.

The guidance also encouraged prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in cases that involve “dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs”. 

“I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation,” Mr Sessions said in the memo. 

The guidance came a couple days after Mr Trump called for executing drug traffickers to tackle the opioid epidemic.

“If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we’re wasting our time … and that toughness includes the death penalty,” Mr Trump said during a trip to New Hampshire, one of the states hit hardest by the crisis. 

Explaining his call for greater use of capital punishment, Mr Trump said that “drug dealers will kill thousands of people during their lifetime … and yet, if you kill one person, you get the death penalty or you go to jail for life.”

Mr Trump has pledged repeatedly that his administration will confront the opioid epidemic in the US, promising to crack down on those responsible for the drug problem that claimed 64,000 lives in 2016 alone.

Statutes allowing prosecutors to pursue the death penalty are already embedded in US law. But the 1994 provisions permitting the execution of certain drug traffickers – even those who have been involved in drug-related murders – has never been used, the Washington Post reported.

Mr Sessions said in a previous statement that the Justice Department under the Trump administration would “continue to aggressively prosecute drug traffickers and we will use federal law to seek the death penalty wherever appropriate.”

His memo on Wednesday also proposed appointing an opioid coordinator in every US district and expanding the use of data analysis tools from the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit.

Mr Trump’s plan to make use of the death penalty against drug traffickers has alarmed many public health experts, who worry that such an approach will only worsen the epidemic. 

Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told PBS that criminalising drugs has tended to drive drug use underground and deter people from seeking treatment for drug abuse. 

She also pointed out that harsh sentences have not been proven to lower drug trafficking and “often have the opposite effect.”

“This is a cynical ploy by the administration to rile up Trump’s base, to look tough, to use failed policies,” she said. “It’s not going to make any difference. Meanwhile, Americans are going to keep dying.”