Addressing a crowd in New Hampshire, one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic, President Trump on Monday called for some drug dealers — "the big pushers" — to be sentenced to death, railing against "sanctuary cities" like Philadelphia for harboring what he deemed dangerous criminals.
His speech was light on specifics — he didn't say exactly which drug crimes he thinks should warrant the death penalty, which already may be applied to charges involving murder committed while trafficking drugs. But his rhetoric echoed the tones of the tough-on-crime tactics adopted during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, even as Philadelphians coping with the opioid epidemic have been agreeing on the failures of that earlier approach.
In otherwise heated debates about the city's decision to green-light a safe-injection site, City Council members, health officials, and community members alike have agreed on one thing: Harsh sentences clogged the city's prisons, decimated communities of color, and left a legacy still felt in neighborhoods like Kensington, which is now shouldering the brunt of an opioid crisis that contributed to an estimated 1,200 overdose deaths last year.
Public health experts said deploying the death penalty in drug cases would serve only to drive the drug crisis further underground, making it even tougher to stem.
Increasing access to treatment — something Trump also pledged Monday — and cracking down on drug dealers are "conflicting strategies," said Scott Burris, a public health law professor at Temple University.
"The more you crack down on drug sellers, the more you're cracking down on drug users — because police will go after users to find dealers, and that drives people away and underground," he said. "Probably the greatest tragedy of the Trump approach is that all the easy solutions are over with. We've got a bunch of things that require thought, cooperation, and evidence, and all he's coming up with is more dumb, easy solutions."
Ben Waxman, a spokesman for District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has said he would not seek the death penalty in any case, said harsh measures like demanding death for dealers "fly in the face of trends in modern prosecutorial conduct."
"Saber rattling might look good on a TelePrompTer, but it has nothing to do, day to day, with what Philadelphia is facing in terms of law enforcement," he said.
During a half-hour speech in Manchester, the president also touched briefly on more widely accepted measures to stem an overdose crisis that killed more than 64,000 people nationwide last year: easing barriers to treatment; decreasing prescriptions for opioid painkillers; and distributing naloxone, the overdose-reversing spray, to first responders and private citizens.
But Trump appeared most comfortable, and least scripted, when he talked about "getting tough" on drug dealers, who he said are "killing so many thousands of our citizens every year." It's a move that plays well to his political base, he acknowledged.
"Lot of voters in this room," he quipped after his death penalty comment won applause.
He lauded other countries with tough drug-sentencing laws (though he didn't name names Monday, he has praised the Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte, whose anti-drug campaign has led to the killings of more than 12,000 people without benefit of due process). Trump blamed Boston and Lawrence, Mass., both sanctuary cities, for the influx of the deadly synthetic fentanyl in surrounding counties. He repeated his frequent call for building a wall along the southern border. And he spoke with disdain of "committees" that he said were not sufficiently focused on law enforcement in efforts to deal with the drug crisis.
"We can have all the blue-ribbon committees you want, but if we don't get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time. … This isn't about 'nice' anymore, this isn't about committees, this isn't about, 'Get everyone and have dinner' and everyone gets a medal," he said. "This is about winning a very, very tough problem, and if we don't get very tough on these dealers, it's not going to happen, folks."
In a memo issued before the speech, the White House touted the funding it has proposed and the grants it has pushed to fight the epidemic over the last year. But health officials in Philadelphia said the federal government's response to the crisis has been lacking. (Politico reported Monday that in several states, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds aimed at stemming the opioid crisis have gone unspent because funding wasn't guaranteed beyond two years, making it difficult to start new programs. Another factor: The Trump administration hasn't set clear priorities for how to fight the epidemic.)
At Community Behavioral Health, the Philadelphia agency that handles Medicaid claims for substance-abuse treatment, Geoffrey Neimark, the agency's chief medical officer, said the federal response so far has gone mostly to federal agencies. On the ground in Philadelphia, the effort has "felt much more like talk than action."
The city Health Department agreed.
"Philadelphia is in the grip of the worst epidemic in a century, and the city and State of Pennsylvania have taken real, concrete actions to try to stem the tide of death and disaster," a Health Department spokesman said in a statement. "The federal government, however, after issuing an extremely thorough and thoughtful report on how to best combat the epidemic, has done nothing since; a public health emergency declaration with no action or funding tied to it is as good as doing nothing at all."