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"Murder on the Installment Plan”: Old nativist debates on drugs and borders rear their heads again in 2024 

The start of 2024 has ushered in another federal election year in the United States, one that promises to pit sides of a deeply divided nation against each other. Two issues in particular—illicit drug use and national borders—have risen to the forefront. Public concerns about crime, undocumented immigration, and drug addiction have inspired some politicians to call for crackdowns to control these supposed national crises. This is particularly true among Republican politicians, who have fused the issues of drug addiction and border politics, calling for increasingly harsh penalties for both undocumented border crossings and drug smugglers. The “tough on crime” approach is most evident in embattled Republican presidential nominee frontrunner Donald Trump, who has renewed calls for the implementation of the death penalty for drug trafficking offenses—especially those that involve cross-border smuggling. This punitive sentiment is now at the core of mainstream Republican politics, with officials like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, failed Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Kelly Craft, and Arizona state lawmakers following suit.

We might rightfully view these developments as further signs that the increasingly polarized political environment has helped foster extreme “solutions” to the nation’s problems. Yet, historians of the long War on Drugs in the United States — especially those of us who focus on the post-World War II period — no doubt recognize this pattern of fusing border and addiction politics. In fact, today’s political debates are eerily reminiscent of discussions about drug use and addiction that took place in the 1950s. Amid public concerns about the rise of heroin use in the US near the end of World War II, politicians, the media, and the public began discussing drug use and addiction as a national crisis. Lawmakers capitalized on public fears—real and imagined. The topic rose to such national prominence that in 1955 Democratic Texas Senator Price Daniel chaired a national senate subcommittee to study the “drug problem.” For months, senators traversed American cities, interviewing a wide range of witnesses about the causes, extent, and solutions to the nation’s drug problem. During these highly publicized hearings, one suggestion emerged repeatedly: the federal government should allow the imposition of the death penalty on drug traffickers. After all, as more than one witness contended during the hearings, drug dealing was simply “murder on the installment plan” and therefore deserved the highest punishment. As Senator Daniel asked of one of the committee witnesses, when smugglers “bring these narcotics, heroin especially, into our country and spread death among our people, do you not think in some of these extreme cases that even the death sentence would be justified?” For Daniel and many witnesses, the answer was a resounding “yes.”


            Drug debates from the post-World War II era resonate with contemporary issues in another way: their focus on Communist China as a culprit behind the nation’s drug problem. Today, many blame the influx of fentanyl on the Chinese government, seeing it as an intentional assault on the American people. In January 2024, for example, one pro-Trump policy think-tank declared that “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been conducting unrestricted warfare against the U.S. One of the most destructive pursuits of the CCP is the production of fentanyl precursors and the facilitation of fentanyl products onto the streets of Ohio and the U.S.” This language could be lifted almost directly from 1950s debates over heroin. At that time, key political figures in the US, steeped in Cold War rhetoric, similarly blamed the rise of addiction on “Red China.” Zealous anti-drug activists and head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, similarly warned in 1955 that China was “dumping narcotics” on the “free world” in order promote its “physical and moral destruction.”[1]

            Emphasizing the interconnected problems of drug addiction, illicit border-crossings, and dangerous foreign actors proved politically expedient in the postwar years. The recommendations of the 1955 Senate subcommittee were incorporated into the Narcotic Control Act of 1956 which, among other measures, increased the minimum and maximum penalties for a wide range of drug offenses. This included—for the first time in US history—the implementation of the death penalty for adult traffickers convicted of selling heroin to minors. Accordingly, the 1956 law set a precedent for the use of capital punishment for drug-related crimes. The 1955 Senate subcommittee hearings also proved politically fruitful for Senator Daniel, who launched and won a bid for the Texas governorship the following year. His tough anti-drug stance, which brought him national prominence, likely helped endear him to voters in the border state.

The Narcotic Control Act set a precedent that was expanded by both Republican and Democratic administrations. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which expanded the use of the death penalty to so-called “narcotics kingpins,” and “in 1994, President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that expanded the federal death penalty to some 60 crimes, 3 of which do not involve murder. The exceptions are espionage, treason, and drug trafficking in large amounts.” To date, no prisoners have been executed by the US federal government for stand-alone narcotics offenses. In part this reflects previous rulings by the Supreme Court, which have restricted the use of the death penalty “where no life was taken in commission of the crime” (see, most recently, the 2008 ruling in Kennedy v. Louisiana). But the makeup of the Supreme Court has changed since 2016, and it is likely that the court will be willing to revisit this issue under the new conservative majority.

The parallels between the politics of anti-drug rhetoric of the 1950s and of the 2024 political season are striking. Identifying a dangerous problem (drug addiction), telling the public who and what is to blame for it (Communist China, porous borders, evil drug traffickers, and weak politicians), and deploying harsher penalties like the death penalty are a potent political combination. Though public support for the use of the death penalty has dropped since its peak in the 1990s, and a “record-high 50% of Americans think the death penalty” is “applied unfairly,” some politicians are once again turning to an old playbook. In their estimation, contemporary concerns over addiction, trafficking, and national borders just might warrant a redoubling of the “tough on crime” politics that has emerged cyclically throughout recent American politics. Concerns over the weakening of the rule of law and constitutional protections at the center of our political debates today make the stakes here even higher. Though only time will tell if renewed calls for extreme solutions will prove effective, we can be sure that they will remain at the center of US national politics for the foreseeable future.

 


[1] “U.S. Prober Finds: Red China Dumping Narcotics on World,” Times Colonist (May 18, 1955), p. 1.

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