A little before 9 am on December 5, President Trump tweeted the following about his recent fentanyl agreement with China:
People immediately pushed back against that figure of over 77,000 supposed fentanyl deaths. It’s incorrect. It seems likely that Trump got “70,000” from federal data released last week—the number of people who died from all drug overdoses in the US last year, not just fentanyl—and added 10 percent for good measure, to hype up support for his inconsequential “deal” with China.
Synthetic opioids like fentanyl were in fact involved in approximately 30,000 deaths in the US in 2017—still a staggering number, but less than half of the figure that Trump blithely shared with his 56.1 million followers.
Could Trump have been referring instead to some kind of global figure? Well, no. It’s impossible to find accurate global estimates of fentanyl-related fatalities, as definitions and reporting vary so much by country. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime states in its 2018 report: “Some 450,000 people died in 2015 as a result of drug use. Of those deaths, 167,750 were a direct result of drug use disorders [mainly overdoses], in most cases involving opioids.”
Worse than statistical innaccuracy, by describing fentanyl as a “horror drug,” Trump continues to exploit the US overdose crisis to rationalize brutal policies—whether advocating for the death penalty in China or the US, or for human rights abuses against refugees arriving from Mexico. “STOP THE DRUGS,” Trump tweeted on December 3, as a rationalization for building “the Wall.”
Trump’s gleeful celebration of death is surreal, though not new. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called the death penalty “barbaric,” and demanded that the US—the world’s eighth most enthusiastic executioner—abolish the practice. “The death penalty has no place in the 21st century,” he said in October 2017. Among US citizens, support for the death penalty is at an all-time low.
China carries out the highest number of known executions in the world—thousands in 2017, although exact figures are hard to come by due to state controls. Four other countries—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan—accounted for 84 percent of the confirmed executions in the rest of the world in 2017.
With no regard for the American people or the UN’s perspectives, Trump has repeatedly said that he “loves” the idea of the death penalty for drug dealers. He has also expressed an affinity for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose murderous drug war has resulted in the killings—without trial—of over 12,000 people suspected of drug-law violations. In 2017 Trump reportedly congratulated the Philippine president for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”