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


Page last updated March 10, 2022 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

"In 2021, 35 countries retain the death penalty for a range of drug offences. Civil society had grounds for optimism at the beginning of the year, thanks to some promising developments in 2020: in Singapore, no executions took place for the first time since 2013; and in Saudi Arabia, Prince Salman declared a moratorium on drug-related executions at the beginning of 2020. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Biden-Harris victory in the 2020 elections raised hopes for new legislation abolishing the federal death penalty in the US.5

"At the end of 2021, the situation appears more uncertain. While no executions were reported in Saudi Arabia and Singapore in 2021, a sudden increase in executions was noted in Iran. This sharp reversal of the 2018-2020 trend, together with unexpected news of death sentences in low application countries, resulted in a rise of both drug-related sentences and executions in 2021.

"As of December 2021, Harm Reduction International (HRI) recorded at least 131 executions for drug offences globally, a 336% increase from 2020. It is imperative to note that this number is likely to represent only a fraction of all drug-related executions carried out globally."

Ajeng Larasati and Giada Girelli, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2021," Harm Reduction International, 2022.

5. Death Penalty In 2021

"Throughout 2021, executions for drug offences were confirmed to have taken place in Iran (at least 131) and China (at least one, a Chinese woman). In China, state secrecy prevents reporting of accurate figures, however, the country is believed to carry out numerous executions (potentially in the thousands, according to Amnesty International).17 Figures from Iran, collected by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Centre for Human Rights in Iran, show a weighty increase in confirmed drug-related executions, from 25 in 2020 to 131 in 2021 - a 424% rise, against a 28% increase in total executions in the country. Concurrently, executions for drug crimes in Iran represented a higher percentage of total executions than in the previous year: from 10% to 42%, back to pre-amendment levels.18 While the root causes of such a sharp surge are yet to be conclusively identified, this trend confirms experts’ fears that the impact of the 2017 Amendments to the Law for Combating Illicit Drugs may be temporary, and linked, at least to some degree, to political circumstances.

"In addition to China and Iran, it is highly likely that executions were carried out in two more countries characterised by extreme opacity of information: North Korea and Vietnam. Indeed, both countries regularly sentence people to death for drug offences, and both countries are believed to regularly execute individuals. In Vietnam, where dozens of drug-related death sentences are imposed every year, eleven execution centres are currently operational.19 In North Korea, civil society consistently identifies drug offences amongst the main crimes for which individuals are executed, although there are no published records or figures.

"Equally notable are findings on the absence of executions: in 2021, no executions for drug offences were carried out in Saudi Arabia for the fir$ time in at least a decade (although one individual was executed for multiple political crimes, as well as “promotion and use” of illicit substances). This development, due to an ongoing moratorium on drug-related executions in the Kingdom, is significant, especially considering that in 2019, 84 drug-related executions were reported, with more likely to have taken place. At the same time, the moratorium has not yet been formalised, or finalised via law reform, meaning executions may restart at any time. According to civil society organisations such as the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights,20 death sentences continue to be imposed and people on death row for drug crimes have not undergone retrials or seen their sentences commuted. Absent more substantial reforms, these individuals are still at imminent risk of execution.

"There were no executions for drugs or any other crimes in Indonesia for the fifth consecutive year. There were also no executions in Singapore for the second year in a row; one execution was announced in late 2021, but was later suspended pending judicial review and national as well as international outcry (for more details, see case study, pag. 29). Though the COVID-19 pandemic certainly played a role, the fact that one of the most committed retentionist countries refrained from carrying out executions is significant.

"On 29 December 2021, the Malaysian government announced that the special committee created in 2019 to reflect upon death penalty abolition will soon present its findings to the executive. The same statement also indicated that “the Bill to amend laws on the death penalty, as well as other relevant laws, is expected to be tabled in Parliament by the third quarter of 2022.”21

"With Saudi Arabia and Singapore currently refraining from carrying out drug-related executions, the group of states that actively executes individuals for these non-violent crimes is shrinking, and is more isolated than ever. At the same time, this group is increasingly characterised by secrecy, if not outright censorship, on the use of capital punishment, in clear violation of its human rights obligations. This poses huge challenges to both institutional and civil society actors monitoring and advocating against capital punishment. For the same reason, and absent more details, the total number of drug-related executions in 2021 should be treated as the minimum confirmed figure. The total number is higher, possibly significantly so."

Ajeng Larasati and Giada Girelli, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2021," Harm Reduction International, 2022.