The war on drugs includes the potential of the federal death penalty for anyone caught with too much of an illicit drug. Nobody has ever actually been executed for anything other than murdering someone else, but Provision 18 U.S.C. § 3591(b)(1) would allow federal prosecutors to go for capital punishment on anyone in possession of 60,000 kilograms of marijuana or 60,000 marijuana plants.
There are a few reasons why this is noteworthy. Marijuana legalization is spreading throughout the United States and there is little that is going to stop it now. Many state legal cannabis growers are certainly in possession of enough marijuana to be executed by the federal government’s standards according to this provision. It shows how antiquated federal law is relative to drugs and further justifies removing cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug.
The other reason this provision is noteworthy is that last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for federal prosecutors around the country to seek the death penalty for more drug trafficking cases. A recent report came out that President Trump supports the idea of executing drug dealers out on the street. While Provision 18 U.S.C. § 3591(b)(1) would likely never hold up in the Supreme Court, the federal stance on marijuana and other drugs is still a very aggressive punitive position versus a stance towards more regulation.
Just under 0.6 kilograms of LSD could trigger the death penalty in a federal drug trafficking case, the lowest such threshold in the statute. While such a pocket-size quantity may not seem like much, it works out to about 6 million standard (100-microgram) doses of the drug.
For meth, the threshold is three kilograms. Similarly, six kilograms of PCP, or angel dust, would trigger the death penalty. PCP use is relatively uncommon — the number of Americans reporting use in 2016 rounded to zero, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
The capital threshold for fentanyl is 24 kilograms, enough to squeeze into one or two backpacks. With a lethal dose of three milligrams for a typical adult man, 24 kilograms of fentanyl could kill approximately 8 million people. Fentanyl analogs, which can be even more powerful, are treated more strictly under federal law.