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Seeing The Humanity Of People Who Sell Drugs

Seeing The Humanity Of People Who Sell Drugs

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

In 2014, Morgan Godvin’s best friend, Justin DeLong, experienced a fatal drug overdose. She had sold him the heroin he used. The next night, police officers raided her apartment and placed her under arrest. She was 24, and her mother had died of an overdose three months earlier. Federal prosecutors charged Godvin with “delivery resulting in death” for her friend’s overdose, a charge that she was told carried a 20-year minimum sentence. She ended up pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute heroin and spent the next five years in prison.

Last month, in a commentary in the Washington Post, Godvin laid out how misguided the government’s response to her friend’s death was and how it failed to recognize the overlap between those who use drugs and those who sell them. “To purchase heroin, you have to know someone who has it, or know someone who knows someone who does. Friends and acquaintances formed our network. The vast majority of heroin dealers I met were not in it to make money. They simply supported their own habit by selling to people they knew who were also addicted. The archetypal predatory drug dealer is a myth. For many, a sale is not about ruthless profit; it is about survival.”

But as the overdose crisis has taken hundreds of thousands of lives in recent years, prosecutions like Godvin’s have become increasingly common. Several states have enacted laws akin to the laws under which she was prosecuted or have made their existing laws harsher.

This week, the Drug Policy Alliance delivered a comprehensive rebuttal to this policy response and the worldview that drives it. In a new report, the organization calls for an end to the broad demonization of and harsh penalties for people selling drugs. It is necessary, the report says, to “rethink the ‘drug dealer.’” The authors note: “Policymakers in the United States increasingly recognize that drug use should be treated as a public health instead of a criminal issue.” Yet, “the softening of public opinion has not extended to people involved in drug selling or distribution, as politicians on both sides of the aisle have made clear.”

The impulse to conceive of people who sell drugs as a category distinct from people who use them is both misguided and counterproductive, the report states. “Politicians and prosecutors who say they want a public health approach to drug use, but harsh criminal penalties for anyone who sells, are in many cases calling for the imprisonment and non-imprisonment of the very same people.”

In 2012, over 80 percent of those arrested for distribution offenses in Chicago tested positive for drug use. In New York and Sacramento it was over 90 percent. Moreover, the laws criminalizing drug sales are written so broadly that people arrested with drugs for their own use are frequently charged as dealers.

The narrative of the dangerous drug dealer also has a long history. It is “a deeply racialized narrative in which illegal drug use is driven by drug sellers (often portrayed as people of color) who push drugs on vulnerable people (often white people) to get them hooked.”

Writing for The Appeal this week, Zachary Siegel reviews the report’s prescribed reforms, which include the repeal of drug-induced homicide laws; calling on progressive prosecutors to decline to prosecute certain sale and distribution-related offenses; and radically reducing the number of arrests police treat as drug sale and distribution.

While advocating for a number of “incremental reforms,” the Drug Policy Alliance remains committed to fundamental changes to how drug use and drug markets are  viewed. “As we consider new approaches for people who use, we also need to explore options for addressing drug sales outside the criminal justice system,” Lindsay LaSalle, managing director of public health law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance told The Appeal. “We need a radical shift away from supply side interventions and must truly examine both the demand for drugs and the economic and structural reasons why people may be selling drugs.”

Ultimately, the distinctions between drug buyers and sellers draws on the same zero-sum instinct—the desire to sort people into opposing categories—as seen in conversations about victims versus offenders and people charged with nonviolent crimes versus those charged with violent crimes. In the discussions of reforms that help free people charged with nonviolent versus those charged with violent crimes, there is the constant risk of presenting one group as deserving at the expense of the other. In the conversations about victims and offenders there is a systemic unwillingness to recognize that many of those who commit harm have themselves been harmed. And for those who have suffered, it seems too often as though the state’s recognition of one’s humanity comes only in the form of the criminal legal system trying to find someone to blame and punish—however irrelevant an exercise that might be.

In her commentary, Godvin points out the lack of support available to her friend while he lived and the massive law enforcement resources mobilized in his name after he died. “Society offered no compassionate resources to Justin while he was alive—only a dozen arrests and a prison sentence, none of which helped him overcome addiction.” But “the federal government poured resources into convicting five people for his accidental overdose—me, my roommate who sold me my heroin, his dealer and that man’s two dealers—sentencing us to 60 total years in prison for Justin’s death.” That enormous amount of incarceration changed nothing. “The flow of heroin in our city, Portland, continued without a moment’s interruption. In the years after the trial, the rate of fatal heroin overdoses in Oregon even increased.”