MANCHESTER, N.H. — President Donald Trump announced new steps to combat the opioid addiction epidemic Monday, pressing for "toughness" in punishing drug dealers — even if it means sentencing them to death.
If we don't get tough on the drug dealers, we're wasting our time," Trump told the crowd, some of whom shouted "yes!" in response to his statement that "that toughness includes the death penalty."
Beyond tougher penalties for dealing and trafficking, including the idea of capital punishment for some offenses, the administration's new opioids plan includes proposals to fund educational campaigns in an attempt to reduce demand for drugs, to promote the idea of alternative medical treatment methods to opioids — with Trump calling for more research into options that are "not so addictive" — and to combat the flow of illicit opioids with increased border security.
Building the wall along the southern border will also "keep the damn drugs out," Trump said Monday, blasting Democrats for linking DACA negotiations with the border wall that serves as a top administration priority. But he also targeted China as a source of the deadly drug fentanyl, telling the crowd that he told both China and Mexico, "don't send it."
While the plan earned Trump, who declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency last year, big applause from the crowd here, the reception on Capitol Hill is likely to be far less enthusiastic. It is unclear what legal basis the administration could use to seek the death penalty for drug trafficking — in a briefing call with reporters Sunday night, a senior administration official said it would be used in "appropriate" instances, but would not provide specific legal precedents — or how the administration plans to fund any of the initiatives the president described in the long term.
Asked for further detail, administration officials have been unable to give specific figures for funding levels they would call on Congress to allocate, saying those conversations are ongoing. In the short term, $6 billion will go to combating the opioid epidemic in 2018.
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Monday's trip marked the president's first visit back to the Granite State since the 2016 election, though advisers denied the event was intended to serve as an early stop in Trump's re-election campaign.
Still, Trump saw the promise of future electoral victory at the gathering, remarking that there were "a lot of voters in this room" and saying he wanted to win the battle against the opioid epidemic by the end of his second term as president. The president's speech, while focused on drug policy, also included riffs on his signature issue, as several in the crowd shouted for him to "build the wall!", and he attacked Democrats over their opposition to his immigration agenda. "They want to make [the immigration issue] part of the campaign," said Trump.
Punishing these "big pushers" with a "zero tolerance policy" works in other countries, Trump said, without naming those countries specifically. He conceded that the United States might not be willing to embrace such a controversial step — even though he couldn't "personally" understand that way of thinking.
Trump might seek to model the U.S. punitive program after the approach taken by countries like China and Singapore that have adopted capital punishment for drug offenses, a senior White House official told NBC last week. Both countries have been criticized for those policies by human rights groups.
Trump told the crowd Monday the Justice Department would focus on finding a way to implement the policy in the United States.
"If we're not going to get tough on the drug dealers who kill thousands of people and destroy so many people's lives, we are just doing the wrong thing," Trump said.
One of Trump's key promises during his presidential run was the development of a comprehensive plan to address opioid addiction — and in New Hampshire, he and other presidential hopefuls found a population eager to hear potential solutions: in 2016, the Granite State had the third highest drug overdose rate in the nation.
Trump — who on Monday praised New Hampshire's efforts to combat addiction — referred to the state as a "drug infested den" during a call with Mexican President Peña Nieto last year, according to a transcript of the call published at the time by the Washington Post.
In that call, he also claimed to have won the state because of voter concern with its drug problems. Trump won New Hampshire's 2016 GOP presidential primary, but lost the state to Hillary Clinton in the general election.