Death Penalty Proposed for Drug Dealers: Is That Even Possible?

By Ceylan Pumphrey, Esq. on March 13, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Given the current opioid crisis going on in the U.S., it's no surprise that the government is trying to find a solution. The most recent thought in addressing the drug problem is having the death penalty on the table for drug dealers. President Trump's administration is reportedly studying the issue, and President Trump backed the idea of the death penalty for drug dealers at a rally in Pennsylvania.

Sentencing for Drug Crimes

The penalties and sentencing for drug crimes will vary depending on the circumstances of the crime. Generally speaking, however, drug trafficking and manufacturing will have harsher penalties than simple possession. Although, if the amount of drug in a person's possession is over a certain amount, it may result in a possession with intent to distribute charge.

Currently, there are four situations under federal law where a prosecutor can seek the death penalty for a drug-related crime:

  1. A murder committed by the use of a gun during a drug-trafficking crime
  2. A drug-related murder involving a drive-by shooting
  3. A murder related to drug trafficking
  4. A drug-related murder of a law enforcement officer

Specifics of broadening when prosecutors can seek the death penalty for drug-related crimes has not been announced publicly. However, one possible approach that's been reported in news sources is to make trafficking large amounts of fentanyl a capital crime since even small amounts of fentanyl can kill a person. In fact, the Department of Justice announced last year that it would aggressively prosecute people that traffic fentanyl-related substance.

Would the Death Penalty for Drug Dealers Be Constitutional?

The death penalty is available for some of the most serious of crimes, such as first degree murder. It has always been a hot-button issue, and the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on allowing the death penalty. But, the question is: would sentencing a convicted drug dealer to death be allowed under the Constitution? The answer to that is unclear.

One law professor from George Washington University said that "the idea would 'very likely' be constitutional." Another law professor -- this one from Ohio State University -- wasn't so sure. He believes that "[i]t is entirely clear that the issue would be litigated extensively and would have to be definitely decided by the U.S. Supreme Court."

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