Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday called again for federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty against drug traffickers who cause overdose deaths.
“These gangs murder people on whims sometimes, deliberately providing drugs that result in deaths,” he said to a room of local, state and federal police in Tallahassee’s federal courthouse. “We will not hesitate to bring a death penalty when it’s appropriate.”
His remarks came a day after he issued a memo to federal prosecutors reminding them that they should pursue capital punishment against some big-time drug traffickers, following orders from President Donald Trump.
“As President Trump has said, career drug traffickers can take more lives than even a mass murderer,” Sessions said.
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The memo prompted alarm and comparisons to strongmen like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose brutal war on drugs has killed thousands. Trump has praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job” combating that country’s drug crisis.
“He is proposing outrageous, dictatorship-style sentences like capital punishment for drug offenders,” state Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said in a statement before Sessions’ remarks.
But death penalty cases against drug dealers are likely to be rare. In his memo, the attorney general said prosecutors could seek the death penalty under the federal “kingpin statute,” which applies to unusually large traffickers. A Justice Department official told CNN Wednesday that they have never used it to seek the death penalty.
However, Sessions reminded law enforcement officials that their local state attorneys can also seek the death penalty against drug dealers in Florida.
At least 16 people die a day in Florida because of opioids, according to estimates. Still, it’s rare for federal or state prosecutors to pursue murder charges against drug dealers.
One reason why: It’s difficult for medical examiners to determine precisely how someone died — overdose victims are often found to have a variety of drugs in their system — and it’s also hard to find who gave them the drugs in the first place.
Federal prosecutors in Florida have brought such charges against at least two drug dealers who were blamed for overdose deaths. One dealer, in Lakeland, is facing a life sentence, and another, in Palm Beach County, was given a 30-year sentence.
Sessions also used Thursday’s stop, which was on the way to his home state of Alabama, to outline what federal authorities are doing to combat the crisis.
He said he was sending 250 Drug Enforcement Agency agents, dozens of analysts and a dozen specialized prosecutors to “hot spots” across the country to bring charges against traffickers, doctors and pharmacies. Those federal personnel would work with state and local police.
The attorney general specifically mentioned sending a federal prosecutor to handle cases in the Orlando and Tampa Bay regions.
Sessions also said he was sending an “opioid coordinator” to every federal district in the country — there are three in Florida — and he emphasized using data from the newly created Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit to help alleviate the problem.
“(Let’s) especially hit this fentanyl,” he told police, referring to the exceptionally powerful opioid that has been linked to thousands of deaths across the country. “Let’s trace it back to, Where’s it coming from? Who are the higher-ups? Let’s go after them.”
Sessions also said he was considering suing opioid manufacturers and distributors. He said doctors are prescribing too many opioids, and he wants the number of pills prescribed to drop by 30 percent over the next three years.
This year the Florida Legislature passed a bill limiting opioid prescriptions to three and seven days for patients with short-term pain, matching recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sessions said Congress is spending billions to tackle the scourge of opioid abuse: “A lot of that will be treatment, prevention — not just law enforcement.”
Despite the tough talk, Sessions at times seemed relaxed and jovial, cracking jokes about the University of Alabama (he got his law degree there in 1973) and Washington politics. He made no mention of his most recent trouble — news that the FBI had investigated him for perjury last year.
“It’s great to be here, a little better climate,” he said. “I’m talking about weather and politics in Washington, D.C. It’s a rough bunch up there. I don’t even have a dog in that forsaken place.”