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Gallup Vault: Executing Drug-Dealers Unpopular in 1987 Poll

Gallup Vault

Gallup Vault: Executing Drug-Dealers Unpopular in 1987 Poll

Thirty years ago, as the U.S. government considered expanding the number of federal crimes punishable by death, a Gallup poll found that fewer than one in two U.S. adults (38%) favored the use of the death penalty for persons convicted of drug-dealing but not convicted of murder. A majority of Americans (55%) opposed the use of the death penalty in this instance.

Americans' Support for the Death Penalty by Type of Crime Committed
Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of…
Favor Oppose
% %
Murder 79 16
Attempting to assassinate the president 63 34
Rape 51 42
Hijacking an airplane 50 45
Spying for a foreign nation during peacetime 42 50
Drug dealers not convicted of murder 38 55
GALLUP, Sept. 9-11, 1988

The Sep. 9-11, 1988 Gallup poll tested Americans' views of using the death penalty for six different types of crime, and applying this punishment to drug dealers was at the bottom of the list. Americans were most inclined to use the death penalty for murder (79%), followed by attempting to assassinate the president (63%), rape (51%), hijacking an airplane (50%) or spying for a foreign nation during peacetime (42%).

In 1988, as today, persons convicted solely of drug-dealing were not eligible for the death penalty; however, in late 1988, Congress expanded the number of offenses which were punishable by death including some drug-related crimes, provided these crimes also resulted in an intentional death. This policy-change was included as part of a larger anti-drug bill and was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in late 1988.

Notably, this policy shift came at a time of increasing concern about the drug situation in the U.S. In 1985, 2% of Americans named drugs as the nation's top problem; this grew to 12% in late 1987 and it would grow as high as 63% in 1989. This latter reading was one of the highest for any single issue in Gallup's eight-decade measurement of the nation's most important problem.

Moreover, support for the death penalty was on the rise, at least when used as a punishment for murder. The 79% of Americans who told Gallup in 1987 that they favored the use of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder was 13 percentage points higher than where support stood in the early 1980's. At the time, this was the highest reading for this trend dating back to 1936, though this record would be eclipsed in later years.

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Despite these trends, Congress ultimately did not change federal law to allow persons convicted solely of drug-dealing to be executed, even as it modified the law to allow some drug-related crimes to count as a capital offense. In not allowing persons convicted solely of drug-dealing to be executed, Congress was on the same page as President Ronald Reagan. Though the Republican president was known as a strong supporter of the death penalty, he was publicly opposed to executing drug dealers (who were also not convicted of murder).

By contrast, President Donald Trump has publicly expressed his support for executing drug-dealers and this week his administration has taken small steps in this direction, though they have not yet requested federal law be changed to allow for this outcome.

If Trump were to pursue this course of action, he would be promoting this policy in a very different environment from 1988. Public concern regarding drugs is low compared to the late 1980s, and last year Gallup found support for the death penalty as a punishment against convicted murderers at a 45-year low.

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