An old man sits on a bench in front of the police substation in one of the worst areas of town. When he sees the narcotics sergeant, he says, “How goes the War on Drugs?” The sergeant says, “Great. We put twenty dealers away this week. Sent them all to prison.” The old man sees the sergeant the next week and says, “How goes the War on Drugs?” “Outstanding,” the sergeant replies. “We put thirty-seven dealers away this week.” This goes on week after week, the number of arrests goes higher and higher. Finally, one day, the sergeant answers the old man, “Best week ever. We put away 178 drug dealers just today alone.” The old man laughs and says, “Pretty soon, no more prison cells.”
So goes the war on drugs. More drugs on the street, the drugs are more lethal than ever, the bodies are piling up, and the jails are overflowing. No end in sight.
New laws set heavy sentences for dealers who sell to a user who dies of an overdose, even if the sale is only a $4 bag between users. Meanwhile the Sacklers are still living in their mansions with no hint of jail time for their crimes. No accountability for the DEA leaders who approved massive increases in the production of oxycodone to meet the needs of Big Pharma. No accountability for the politicians who respond only to the lock them up chants, ignoring medical and scientific evidence of what works and what doesn’t.
A recent research study in the International Journal of Drug Policy suggests that new laws charging drug dealers with homicide will have little effect. The forty inmates who were interviewed for the study believe such a law might even have the unintended consequence of deterring people from calling 911 to report an overdose. Many dealers support their own habit by selling to others in their circle. Past research found that 70 percent of state prisoners and 59 percent of federal prisoners arrested for drug trafficking were drug-dependent in the month before they committed their crimes.[i] Knowing that selling to someone who overdoses could lead to imprisonment, one friend might leave an acquaintance overdosed and alone rather than risk summoning help that could lead to a twenty-year prison term.[ii]
A chilling footnote to the incarcerations of drug users is that very few receive treatment for their addiction while in prison. Inmates get detoxed, but their underlying triggers are not addressed. Worse yet, prisoners who are on methadone or Suboxone when they are incarcerated stop receiving the lifesaving medication when the jail door locks them in. When they get out of prison and return to their old environment, many relapse. With their tolerance down, they have the highest risk of fatal overdose. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that prisoners in Washington State were twelve times more likely to die in their first two weeks after release than were members of the general population (matched for age, sex, and race), and tellingly the ex-cons were 129 times more likely to die of an overdose.[iii]
I have seen this many times. A man dead in a sparse room in a boarding house, needle in his arm. In his wallet, no money, only a card for his probation officer.
Recently a judge in Canada, bucked standard practice and sentenced a street level fentanyl dealer, who dealt only to support her own habit, to probation. One judge, one defendant, one case. Hooray for showing some needed sense.
Let’s hope this case is the first of many. Let’s hope here in the US of A, we start showing sense of our own. We have to if we want to find our way out this quagmire.
To learn more about the failed War on Drugs, read chapter 19 of my book Killing Season.
[i] Bureau of Justice Statistics, Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004, revised January 19, 2007. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/dudsfp04.pdf.
[ii] Meghan Peterson, Josiah Rich, Alexandria Macmadu, Ashley Q. Truong, Traci C. Green, Leo Beletsky, Kimberly Pognon, and Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, “<TH>‘One Guy Goes to Jail, Two People Are Ready to Take His Spot’: Perspectives on Drug-Induced Homicide Laws among Incarcerated Individuals,” International Journal of Drug Policy 70 (2019): 47–53.
[iii] Ingrid A. Binswanger, Marc F. Stern, Richard A. Deyo, Patrick J. Heagerty, Allen Cheadle, Joann G. Elmore, and Thomas D. Koepsell, “Release from Prison—a High Risk of Death for Former Inmates,” New England Journal of Medicine 356, no. 2 (2007): 157–65.