Capital Punishment for Drug Offenses (Death Penalty and Extrajudicial Killings)


Page last updated July 4, 2021 by Doug McVay, Editor.

1. Capital Punishment for Drug Offenses in the US - Federal Law

Federal death penalty law: 18 USC § 3591(b)
"Despite drug trafficking being a federal capital offence in the USA, the country has never executed anyone for drug-related offences.250 Nevertheless, the USA remains the only country to have carried out executions in the Americas region in seven consecutive years.251 Donald Trump’s recent public support of the death penalty,252 his call for fast trials, and his support for Duterte’s bloody ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines are very worrying,253 particularly as 2017 has seen some States, including Arkansas, Florida and Ohio, resume executions after long hiatuses.254"

Gen Sander. The Death Penalty For Drug Offences: Global Overview 2017. Harm Reduction International, March 2018.

2. Federal Offenses Eligible for Death Penalty

Table: Federal offenses eligible for death penalty

US Attorneys Manual. Criminal Resource Manual. Capital Eligible Statutes Assigned by Section. Last accessed April 14, 2021.

3. Global Overview of Capital Punishment for Drug Offenses

"• There are at least 33 countries and territories that prescribe the death penalty for drug offences in law.
"• At least nine countries still have the death penalty for drug offences as a mandatory sanction, although three of these (Brunei Darussalam, Laos and Myanmar) are abolitionist in practice. Malaysia removed the mandatory sentence for drug offences in November 2017.
"• Between January 2015 and December 2017, at least 1,320 people are known to have been executed for drug-related offences – 718 in 2015; 325 in 2016; and 280 in 2017. These estimates do not include China, as reliable figures continue to be unavailable for the country.
"• Taking China out of the equation due to a lack of data, Iran has been the world’s top executioner for drug offences by far, with at least 1,176 executions carried out since January 2015. That amounts to nearly 90% of all reported drug-related executions during that period.
"• Between 2015 and 2017, executions for drug offences took place in at least five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Singapore."

Gen Sander. The Death Penalty For Drug Offences: Global Overview 2017. Harm Reduction International, March 2018.

4. Death Penalty for Drug Offenses

"Although the number of countries retaining the death penalty for drugs did not change in 2020, the implementation of this measure has changed significantly, insomuch as – if capitalised upon – 2020 could represent a watershed moment for the death penalty for drugs. Most significantly, the number of minimum confirmed executions has dropped to 30. For comparison, at least 116 people were executed for drug offences in 2019. This is only a partial figure, due to a widespread lack of transparency on executions and the complete unavailability of figures on China and Vietnam; nevertheless, this is, by far, the lowest recorded number since HRI started reporting on this issue in 2007."

Ajeng Larasati and Giada Girelli, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2020," Harm Reduction International, 2021.

5. Death Penalty In 2020

"The significant reduction in drug-related executions is undoubtedly a positive development - an opportunity for countries to rethink the necessity and effectiveness of this policy, and for advocates to further intensify their calls for abolition. Nevertheless, there is more to the death penalty than executions themselves. In times of COVID-19, the operation of a justice system may make it difficult or near impossible to carry out executions, but it does not necessarily stop the imposition of the death penalty. Notably, at least ten countries sentenced a minimum of 213 people to death for drug offences in 2020 - a 16.3% increase from the 183 confirmed in 2019.12 This upward trend was particularly significant in some countries, such as Indonesia, where 77 people were sentenced to death for drug trafficking in 2020 (a 79% increase from 2019). Conversely, substantial numbers of death sentences contribute to the growing number of people on death row, where many have spent more than a decade. This unwavering reliance on the death penalty – even in times of exceptional challenges – is as troubling as the executions themselves.

"It is essential to note that there remains a pervasive and systemic lack of transparency around the death penalty, which is in violation of clear international standards.13 The issue of transparency was exacerbated in 2020, when collecting information about the use of the death penalty for drug offences was even more challenging than in previous years. This is likely due to COVID-19 dominating the news, restrictions imposed upon movement, and the shrinking of civil society space; all of which negatively impacted independent monitoring of the death penalty. At the same time, several UN human rights processes, such as country reviews by Treaty Bodies and country visits by Special Procedures, came to a halt or were delayed, resulting in an even lower number of available resources to track the application of the death penalty. This signals a pressing need for monitoring processes to resume, to ensure that violations and trends are documented and addressed. Well-integrated human rights monitoring and documentation should become an essential component to prevent further and future violations of human rights.

"Finally, 2020 also witnessed the regression of some countries, with plans to apply harsher punishment to drug offences. For example, the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has continued pushing to reintroduce the death penalty as part of his ‘war on drugs’. At the time of writing, a bill that would re-impose the death penalty has been adopted in the lower house of Congress, and is due to be discussed in the Senate."

Ajeng Larasati and Giada Girelli, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2020," Harm Reduction International, 2021.