Carol Robidoux / Manchester Ink Link
President Donald Trump discusses the opioid epidemic Monday during a speech on national drug policy at Manchester Community College in Manchester, NH. (Carol Robidoux / Manchester Ink Link)

President Donald Trump traveled Monday to New Hampshire — one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic — to unveil his latest plan to beat back the drug scourge including seeking the death penalty for what he termed “big pushers.”

“We will be focusing on the penalty that I talked about previously for the big pushers, the ones that are really killing so many people, and that penalty is going to be the death penalty,” Trump said to applause from the crowd in Manchester.

Trump’s stance was panned by Connecticut’s two U.S. Senators and its Democratic governor, but it received support from a Guilford mother who lost her 20-year-old son to a drug overdose and recently spent time at both the White House and on national television speaking about the opioid epidemic.

Trump said he wouldn’t “mention names,” but added that the U.S. should take influence from some countries that are already sentencing drug dealers to death.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has waged a notoriously violent war on drug dealers, with law enforcement officers killing scores of them, often in grizzly and public ways.

Trump added that “maybe our country is not ready” for such a system, but urged Americans to reconsider.

“Unless you have really, really powerful penalties led by the death penalty for the really bad pushers and abusers, we are going to get nowhere,” he said.

New Hampshire has had the second highest rate of opioid-involved overdose deaths in the nation since 2014. A poll conducted last year found that drugs were the biggest problem facing the Granite State.

Opioids, including prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, killed more than 42,000 people in the U.S. in 2016, more than any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of drug-related overdose deaths in Connecticut topped 1,000 in 2017, the highest number since the opioid epidemic began.

Besides the death penalty initiative, Trump said his effort will focus on: law enforcement and interdiction, prevention and education through a sizable advertising campaign, federally funded treatment, and employment help for those impacted by the epidemic. However, there were few details on how much funding would be dedicated to the effort.

Trump has declared that fighting the epidemic is a priority for the administration but critics say the effort has fallen short.

Sue Kruczek, of Guilford, who lost her son, Nick, to a drug overdose in 2013, liked what she heard from Trump on Monday.

“The president is working on drug courts and rehabilitation for drug offenders,” Kruczek said. “His administration recognizes that long-term rehab/therapy is what is needed and that many turn to selling to support their habit.”

On the death penalty issue, Kruczek said: “The president would like to prosecute to the fullest the large drug traffickers who knowingly are cutting large amounts of fentanyl into heroin causing deaths by overdose.

“I know many who are in recovery that are very much against strict punishment. But, I also know many grieving families who are for this. Which is also where I stand,” Kruczek said.

The politicians charged with fighting the epidemic in Connecticut, however, weren’t thrilled with Trump’s latest initiatives on the drug crisis — including his call for the death penalty in some cases for so-called drug pushers.

“Gov. Dannel Malloy does not support the death penalty,” Malloy spokesman Leigh Appleby said, who added that the governor — and the legislature — have passed several laws in recent years, including one limiting the number of days prescriptions can be written for, in efforts to tackle the crisis.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy,  who co-authored legislation last year to spend $1 billion to fight opioid addiction, didn’t mention the death penalty specifically but also was skeptical of Trump’s latest plans.

“The opioid crisis has devastated families across Connecticut,” Murphy said. “I’ve been traveling around the state, visiting cities and rural communities to meet with doctors, law enforcement providers, and individuals in recovery and those still struggling from addiction.”

Murphy added: “I’ll work with President Trump if he’s helping Connecticut, but unfortunately there have been too many broken promises and too much unhelpful rhetoric. If President Trump wants to help stem the opioid crisis, he should stop trying to gut programs like Medicaid and instead work with Congress to make real investments in recovery.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal added that “the opioid addiction epidemic is a public health crisis that requires real remedies, not just rhetoric. More resources and support for stronger enforcement are needed, but the nation cannot arrest or jail — or execute — its way out of the opioid epidemic.”

In his New Hampshire speech, Trump also took a jab at Democrats for refusing to provide funding for his long-promised border wall with Mexico. He said most of the heroin in the country comes from the southern border.

Carol Robidoux / Manchester Ink Link
L to R: Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and first lady Melania Trump listen to the president’s comments Monday at Manchester Community College in Manchester, NH. (Carol Robidoux / Manchester Ink Link)

“Eventually the Democrats will agree with us and will build the wall to keep the damn drugs out,” Trump said.

Trump also blamed “sanctuary cities” such as New York and San Francisco for not complying with federal authorities. “They’re safe havens for just some terrible people, some terrible people,” Trump said. “And they’re making it very dangerous for our law enforcement officers.”

The opioid epidemic has been fueled, according to some, by the drug industry, and not and necessarily any illegal or illicit drugs.

Meanwhile, Trump has mused openly in recent weeks about subjecting drug dealers to the “ultimate penalty.”

He made similar comments at a recent White House summit on opioids.

“Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty. And, by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do,” Trump said. “So we’re going to have to be very strong on penalties.”

White House officials referred questions about the death penalty and drug traffickers to the Justice Department, which said the federal death penalty is available for several limited drug-related offenses, including violations of the “drug kingpin” provisions in federal law.

Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, said Trump’s proposal was “absurd.”

“Drug trafficking is not an offense for which someone can receive the death penalty,” McCurdy said, referring to a Supreme Court precedent that puts constraints on using the penalty when the person was not convicted of homicide.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The photographs with this story were contributed by the Manchester Ink Link in New Hampshire.