A Brief History
On November 18, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law legislation (Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988) that made certain drug trafficking offenses punishable by the death penalty, a sharp escalation of the “War on Drugs.” In hindsight, the War on Drugs is seen today as having been an abject failure and perhaps mismanaged, and the national sentiment about capital punishment has also shifted toward decreased support for executions and increased support for banning the death penalty.
Reagan had been elected President in 1980 as the oldest (at the time) man elected to that office. Having been a Hollywood actor that invariably played “good guy” roles in films, Reagan was perceived to be a sort of avuncular character, the strong but kindly dad or grandpa of the country, a person with strong “law and order” sentiments. In fact, he even starred in a 1953 film titled Law and Order! His administrations (having been elected twice) were characterized by increased criminal penalties and a “lock ‘em up” mentality, including the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, that saw increased minimum sentences among other things. How times change! Today we have seen the trend sharply swing toward lessening of mandatory prison sentences for crimes and many states have done away with capital punishment. Today, 21 states (as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) have abolished the death penalty, although movements in 11 of those states to reinstate capital punishment are underway. Obviously, the subject is divisive and hotly debated.
Some countries still have current death penalty rules for drug dealers, something like 32 countries, although only 6 actually implement the ultimate punishment. You will certainly know which countries those are every time an American gets caught smuggling drugs into or out of one of those places with harsh penalties!
Other current trends against capital punishment include exceptions for juveniles (Roper v. Simmons 2005) and people of limited mental capacity, as well as limiting the offenses for which a person could be sentenced to death. Why would we address the topic of what crimes merit execution? Perhaps because of the execution of Thomas Graunger of Plymouth Colony in 1642, convicted of “buggery” with farm animals (bestiality), earning him a death by hanging. Remember, people used to get executed for witchcraft and even stealing minor items back in the bad old days, so the trend toward tightening the requirements for a crime to rise to the capital level has been evolving for centuries.
Another factor in the backlash against severe penalties for drug related crimes is the alleged racial disparity in application of prison sentences, not to mention the disparity in application of capital punishment, both sentencing and actual executions. The disparity gap also applies (in the extreme) to the relative wealth of the accused person. Sadly, recent studies that indicate an alarming number of people sentenced to death or long prison terms are actually innocent, perhaps about 4% of those so sentenced, has shocked the public into decreased support for extreme sentencing, especially the ultimate sentence. It seems like the news everyday tells us the nightmare tale of one prisoner or another that is finally exonerated after serving years in prison, often on death row.
In fact, despite often heard references to how wonderful the American system of criminal justice allegedly is, incredible disparities exist in how people are treated by the system. You will find tax cheats on a massive scale that are only required to pay back the tax amount (and maybe penalties and interest) while other so called offenders get prosecuted. During World War II, the United States undoubtedly had many people that shirked their duties, deserted their position in the military or other government assignment, and otherwise turned their back on their country, and yet we have the infamous case of Private Edward Slovik, a sad sack that was convicted of and executed for the military crime of desertion in 1945, the ONLY American serviceman executed for desertion since the American Civil War. Why him and not the other jillions of deserters? Seems to be (obviously) a lack of consistency at work here!
Unlike Presidential candidate Michael Stanley Dukakis (Democrat) that, while running for the 1988 Presidential election, answered a question about whether or not he would want the death penalty applied to a person convicted of raping and murdering his wife and said flatly, “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” we would not be so quick to extend pity, sympathy or clemency to anyone that killed our loved ones! This instant response by Dukakis seemed to many Americans to either be insincere or idiotic, and in either case his answer did not endear him to many voters.
As you may pick up from the preceding paragraphs, we are leery of the application of justice in the United States, and yet in all honesty we would not take kindly to any person that we honestly believed had done great bodily harm to our loved ones. Does this mean we support or do not support the death penalty/capital punishment? Wow! Is that a tough one to answer! Our non-answer is that the subject requires even more debate, studies, and stringent requirements to preclude the execution of innocent people. How about your answer?
Note: In 2001, Juan Raul Garza was executed by the United States Government for multiple homicides in conjunction with a drug smuggling operation. No other person has been executed in the US for merely drug crimes.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should the United States execute drug dealers and drug smugglers? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Cowles, Colleen. War on Us: How the War on Drugs and Myths About Addiction Have Created a War on All of Us. Fidalgo Press, 2019.
Oshinsky, David. Capital Punishment on Trial: Furman v. Georgia and the Death Penalty in Modern America. Univ Pr of Kansas, 2010.
Provine, Doris. Unequal under Law: Race in the War on Drugs. University of Chicago Press, 2007.
The featured image in this article, the seal of the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy, a part of the Executive Office of the President, extracted from a PDF version of The Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States 1992–2002 (direct PDF URL ), is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain.