Death penalty for drug dealers encouraged

Critics say greater use of the death penalty could greatly tie up resources. Photo credit: Getty

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has instructed federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in drug-related cases whenever it is "appropriate", saying the move is necessary to counter an epidemic of opioid abuse.

It follows a plan announced by President Donald Trump earlier this week that called for executing opioid dealers and traffickers.

The call has already sparked a backlash from criminal justice reform groups who say it is the wrong response to a public health crisis.

"In the face of all of this death, we cannot continue with business as usual," Mr Sessions said.

"Drug traffickers, transnational criminal organisations, and violent street gangs all contribute substantially to this scourge. To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal," he added.

Critics say that greater use of the death penalty could greatly tie up resources at US Attorneys' offices, because death penalty cases are more complex and take longer to move through the court system.

Many American states also impose the death penalty, although also only for the most heinous crimes. Use of the death penalty has been declining in recent years because of a lack of access to drugs used in executing people.

Under US law, there are only four limited circumstances in which the death penalty can be sought in federal drug cases.

Those include cases which involve racketeering, cases involving the use of a firearm resulting in death during a drug trafficking crime, cases where a murder is committed as a part of a crime enterprise and cases involving large quantities of drugs.