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The death penalty is not a solution to a health crisis

By Kristina Roth, Senior Program Officer, Criminal Justice Program

More and more, the global community is abandoning the archaic use of capital punishment. Our latest research shows that in 2017, there were at least 993 confirmed executions worldwide, which is 39 percent fewer than a recorded high in 2015. The United States, while not yet at the point of giving up the practice completely, has shown progress, with the number of executions and death sentences trending in lower numbers than we’ve seen in decades.

Which is why it was so discouraging when President Trump announced last month that, in a purported effort to curb the opioid epidemic, his administration would seek to execute people that traffic drugs. While the death penalty is never the solution to any problem, executing people for drug-related offenses is an extreme position that would set the US against the global trend away from the death penalty. It is also an ineffective solution, in addition to being a blatantly cruel one.

Evidence has shown, in relation to drug-related crime specifically, that punitive policies encourage high-risk drug use behaviors and increase the marginalization of those who use drugs. Fifteen countries in the world retain the death penalty for drug-related offenses, with at least four — China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore — confirmed to have carried out such executions last year. Death sentences were applied as the mandatory punishment, and in some cases were based on statements that were later disputed or taken during police interrogation without the presence of a lawyer.

Even among countries that have carried out such executions in the past, reforms are being made. Iran and Malaysia –two staunch supporters of the death penalty — have taken steps to reduce its use for drug-related offenses. Yet, the United States seeks to go in the opposite direction.

Any attempt to address the opioid crisis must be done in a way that reduces harm, not in a way that adds to it. We need a response that is humane, effective, and evidence-based, and that comprehensively addresses the many causes of this public health crisis. We need policies that protect marginalized groups, reduce stigma, and ensure that people can access necessary health care in a timely manner, including prevention, information, harm reduction, medicines and treatment — something that hasn’t happened as a result of restrictive drug control policies.

We must seek policy solutions that tackle social inequalities, addressing the root causes that lead people to engage in drug markets, advancing economic, social and cultural rights; addressing deep rooted injustices in the criminal justice system; and reducing the violence associated with illicit drug markets and counter-narcotic operations. We know that people of color and poor people are overrepresented in those executed in the U.S. There is no reason to assume that this discrimination wouldn’t manifest itself if the death penalty were extended to drug-related offenses.

The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment in all cases, regardless of the crime alleged to have been committed. The United States must move towards its complete abolition — as the majority of the world’s countries have already done.

The government does have an obligation to adopt adequate measures to protect people from the dangers posed by drug use. But we have seen in other countries that the death penalty has failed to stop the illegal drug trade or protect those who use drugs and those around them. It will surely be just as ineffective here. Our leaders should focus on evidence-based solutions that put the dignity and humanity of everyone involved in this health crisis at the center, not place even more people at lethal risk.

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