Today Donald Trump praised China for classifying the export of fentanyl (or, as he calls it, "fentanol") as "a major crime," making traffickers subject to the death penalty. "In China, unlike in our country, the highest level of crime is very, very high," Trump said at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta. "You pay the ultimate price. So I appreciate that very much."
Contrary to what the president implied, U.S. law does authorize the execution of drug traffickers in certain circumstances. Drug offenders eligible for the death penalty include leaders of criminal enterprises that sell 60,000 kilograms of marijuana, 60 kilograms of heroin, 17 kilograms of crack cocaine, or 600 grams of LSD.
That provision has been on the books since 1994, but it has never been carried out. It probably never will be, since it seems to be unconstitutional under a 2008 decision in which the Supreme Court said the Eighth Amendment requires that the death penalty be reserved for "crimes that take the life of the victim." While deadly violence committed "in aid of racketeering activity" or "during and in relation to any…drug trafficking crime" would qualify for that description, nonviolent drug distribution seemingly would not.
Trump has suggested otherwise, arguing that "we have pushers and drugs dealers [who] are killing hundreds and hundreds of people" through overdoses. "If you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty," he said at a March 2018 opioid summit. "These people can kill 2,000, 3,000 people, and nothing happens to them." He added that "some countries have a very, very tough penalty—the ultimate penalty—and by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do."
Trump made similar comments later that month, and his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, urged federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug traffickers whenever feasible. Last December the president predicted that "the results will be incredible" if the Chinese government uses "the Death Penalty for distributors and pushers" of fentanyl. So Trump's thirst for drug traffickers' blood is well-established, and so is his admiration for authoritarian governments that dare to draw it on a regular basis.
A 2015 report from Harm Reduction International identified 33 countries that authorize the death penalty for drug offenses. But it classified just seven—China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia—as "high application states," meaning "the sentencing of people convicted of drug offences to death and/or carrying out executions are a routine and mainstreamed part of the criminal justice system." Three of those countries—China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—account for almost all known executions of drug offenders: 546 out of 549 in 2013. Those are the examples Trump wants us to follow.