Politicians often escalate drug war rhetoric to show voters that they are doing something. But it is rare to ignore generations of lessons as President Trump did earlier this month when he announced his support for the execution of drug traffickers.
This idea is insane. But the war on drugs has never made any sense to begin with.
Executing a few individual smugglers will do little to stop others because there is no high command of the international drug trade to target, no generals who can order a coordinated surrender of farmers, traffickers, money launderers, dealers or users. The drug trade is diffuse and can span thousands of miles from producer to consumer. People enter the drug economy for all sorts of reasons — poverty, greed, addiction — and because they believe they will get away with it. Most people do. The death penalty only hurts the small portion of people who are caught (often themselves minorities and low-level mules).
Indeed, on the ground, the threat of execution will even help those who aren’t caught because they can charge an increased risk premium to the next person in the smuggling chain. The risk of capture and punishment increases as drugs move from farm to processing lab, traversing jungles, through cities, across oceans, past borders, distributed by dealers and purchased by consumers. The greater the risk to smugglers in this chain, the more they can demand in payment.