On March 19, President Donald Trump unveiled his administration’s plan to stem the opioid overdose crisis in the United States, which has claimed some 350,000 lives since 2000. Among other measures, it proposes severe punishment for people involved in the illegal drug trade, including longer minimum jail sentences and potentially the death penalty.
This is an extreme version of what’s actually an old approach to combating substance use: Attacking the supply side of the drug trade.
International human rights law mandates that the death penalty only be imposed for the “most serious crimes.” And many of the countries that allow capital punishment for drug crimes rarely apply this punishment in practice. A few – including Myanmar and Laos – never do.
It’s noteworthy, I think, that all of these countries are either authoritarian regimes or democracies where civil liberties are seriously threatened. Among the 33 countries that punish drug offenses with death, only three – India, South Korea and Taiwan – are considered democratic by the watchdog group Freedom House.
China and Iran: High drug use despite death penalty
Typically, governments that kill their citizens for drug offenses don’t publish good statistics on drug use. That makes it difficult to document the effects of these policies.
Most of the information I use in this analysis comes from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and from reports by international human rights organizations. Taken together, this data shows little correlation between harsh criminal sanctions and rates of drug use.
Singapore and Philippines: No evidence of progress
Singapore, which executed three people for drug offenses in 2017, claims that the death penalty has worked to reduce drug use. But this position is difficult to verify.
Government data there indicates that just 0.3 percent of Singaporeans have taken drugs in the past year – which is a low consumption rate. But the most recent available estimates also show that opioid use in Singapore is now rising. If the death penalty actually deterred drug use, consumption rates should have either decreased or remained steady.
Little suggests that this bloody campaign is stemming drug consumption in the Philippines. In 2012, years before Duterte came to power, the country already had generally low rates of drug use, according to government data. And between 2008 and 2012, consumption of marijuana – the most widely used drug in the Philippines – decreased 17 percent.
These numbers call into question Duterte’s claim that “drug abuse” in the Philippines is a symptom of “virulent social disease.”
None of these policies led drug use in the United States to drop. Cocaine consumption, for example, decreased in the late 1980s, peaked in the 1990s and declined again starting in 2006. Meanwhile, heroin use has risen dramatically.
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