WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday the "ultimate penalty" may be in order for drug dealers because the nation's drug problem will never be solved without a show of strength and toughness.
The comments were Trump's most explicit on the matter to date. He previously has alluded to death for drug dealers by noting that some countries are "very harsh" with drug dealers. Trump also has said he knows the answer to the drug crisis, but he isn't sure the country is "ready for it yet."
In remarks Thursday at a White House summit on the opioid epidemic, Trump said drug dealers and pushers kill hundreds of people but that that most don't go to jail.
"You know, if you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty. These people can kill 2,000, 3,000 people and nothing happens to them," he said, referring to drug dealers.
"Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty. And, by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do," Trump continued. "So we're going to have to be very strong on penalties."
Trump also held out the possibility of initiating federal lawsuits against opioid makers and distributors. He also said his administration will be "rolling out a policy" on opioids in the coming weeks that will be "very, very strong." Neither he nor his aides provided any details.
Trump said he had spoken with Attorney General Jeff Sessions about suing opioid makers. Sessions announced this week that the Justice Department will support local officials in hundreds of lawsuits against opioid makers and distributors.
Addressing potential federal litigation, Trump said: "I think it's very important because a lot of states are doing it, but I keep saying, if states are doing it, 'Why isn't the federal government doing it?' So that will happen. So that will happen."
Trump's wife, Melania, opened the summit. She said many people are grieving loved ones lost to the opioid crisis and "we need to change that."
She read from a letter from Betty Henderson, a Florida woman who lost her 29-year-old son, Billy, to drugs last September. Henderson appealed to Mrs. Trump for help "in claiming these lost souls before drugs take them from this earth."
Opioids, including prescription opioids, heroin and fentanyl, killed more than 42,000 people in this country in 2016, more than any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trump has declared that fighting the opioid epidemic is a priority for the administration but critics say the effort has fallen short.
Trump in the past has addressed the issue of tough penalties for drug dealers and pushers.
In January, Trump said: "We've never had a problem with drugs like we do, whether it's opioid or drugs in the traditional sense. It's never been like it is.
"And we are going to do everything we can. It's a very difficult situation, difficult for many countries," Trump said. "Not so difficult for some, believe it or not. They take it very seriously and they're very harsh. And those are the ones that have much less difficulty. "
Trump raised the issue later that month as he signed legislation giving Customs and Border Protection agents new resources to stop the illicit drug flow. He suggested that he'd like to take a more aggressive approach to the drug crisis — but said the country isn't ready for what he has in mind.
"So we're going to sign this. And it's a step. And it feels like a very giant step, but unfortunately it's not going to be a giant step, because no matter what you do, this is something that keeps pouring in," he said.
"And we're going to find the answer. There is an answer. I think I actually know the answer, but I'm not sure the country's ready for it yet," he added. "Does anybody know what I mean? I think so."