The Trump administration is continuing to raise eyebrows with its not-so-new approaches to longstanding problems. The most recent is the plan to “solve” the opioid epidemic by, among other things, introducing the death penalty in certain cases for drug dealers. While the death penalty may seem like a new tactic, it’s essentially just a continuation of the century-long pattern of the drug war: when the policies aren’t working, make them tougher.
There are some immediate objections one can think of to why the death penalty won’t be an effective deterrent, not the least of which is the fact that drug dealers are already willing to kill each other. But President Trump is citing the supposed successes of China and Singapore as justification for resorting to the death penalty. In a speech given in Pennsylvania, Trump said:
“The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness. When you catch a drug dealer you gotta put him away for a long time. When I was in China and other places, by the way, I said, Mr. President, do you have a drug problem? ‘No, no, no, we do not.’ I said, Huh. Big country, 1.4 billion people, right. Not much of a drug problem. I said what do you attribute that to? ‘Well, the death penalty.’”
Trump made similar comments regarding Singapore’s supposed success at combating drugs by imposing the death penalty on traffickers.
But despite what the countries’ leaders might claim, drug use in both China and Singapore isn’t remarkably different than it is in the United States. As of 2015, only 10.1 percent of the U.S. population age 12 or older used any illicit drugs, including marijuana. According to China’s own National Narcotics Control Commission, their population of drug users is estimated to be at least 14 million, which is also about 10 percent of the population, and the population of users is steadily rising.
Singapore is a better example though, as their Misuse of Drugs Act imposed a mandatory death penalty on drug dealers in 1973. As a result, Singapore has had one of the highest per capita rates of execution of any country. In the 1990s, Singapore executed nearly 14 people per million, compared to China’s 2 million. With such harsh penalties so thoroughly carried out, one might imagine that drug use must be on the decline.
Official statistics for the city-state suggest that drug use in Singapore is substantially lower than the vast majority of countries. But there seems to be plenty of reason to doubt the official numbers. The Central Narcotics Bureau of Singapore has reported a rise in new users among those arrested, and they also boast of the “19 island-wide operations targeting drug traffickers and abusers” carried out in 2017 alone, in addition to 1,661 operations conducted to intercept drug imports. The total amount of drugs seized in these operations suggest that the market for drugs is substantially larger than Singapore’s government is willing to admit.
None of this should be surprising, economically. As long as there is a market, there will be willing suppliers. Tougher policies do have an effect, which is to increase the risk associated with entering the illicit drug industry. This might push up the price of drugs, at least temporarily, but as Mark Thornton has long demonstrated, it also serves to make the drugs more potent.
The policies the Trump administration is touting are contradictory to their stated goal. The focus is not just on opioids, but on fentanyl-laced opioids, as fentanyl increases the potency and deadliness of the drug. But fentanyl’s introduction to the heroin market is the result of stricter drug laws increasing the cost of drug importation, not the lack of “toughness.” If Trump’s policies are put into force, there is no reason to believe that the opioid epidemic will do anything but worsen.
If the White House really wants to solve the opioid epidemic, the best thing they can do is to repeal the criminalization of heroin and other illicit substances. As I argued two years ago, legal heroin — contrary as the idea might seem to most people — would actually remove the factors that lead to highly potent drugs of unreliable consistency. Just as people moved from moonshine to beer after the repeal of alcohol prohibition, the decriminalization of drugs would remove the economic incentives to produce fentanyl-laced heroin and other increasingly dangerous substances.
Chris Calton is a Mises University alumnus and an economic historian. He is writer and host of the Historical Controversies podcast. Republished from mises.org.