History has shown us that the “war on drugs” has not only failed to solve the nation’s substance use concerns but that it has also created a whole slew of new social justice issues, most notably the extraordinarily harmful and racially disparate mass incarceration problem in this country.
While most recovery advocates recognize the harm this bad criminal justice policy approach has caused people who use alcohol and other drugs, not to mention their families and communities, there is a new iteration of the “war on drugs” emerging. This new war on drugs, “War On Drugs 2.0” if you will, has focused its sights on a different group of people. Parallel to the understanding growing that incarcerating our way out of substance use disorder just doesn’t work for people and that prevention, early intervention, treatment and recovery support services are far more humane and effective, there is now a new target enemy in War On Drugs 2.0: the drug dealers.
Now granted, drug dealers have long been a target in the war on drugs. But something is significantly shifting here. As people who have more privilege and power to affect change are finding themselves losing loved ones to an active substance use disorder or substance use related deaths, there is a loud mounting call for harsher punitive measures for drug dealers. This group of individuals doing the advocating is not satisfied with simply the life-altering felony drug dealing charges of days past. No, this group of individuals is demanding more. Murder and attempted murder charges. The rationale? If somebody sells a product to another person and that product kills them, the seller is then directly responsible for the death. This logic makes sense to many individuals, communities and lawmakers, and in turn we are seeing more laws being enacted across the country that charge drug dealers with murder if they distributed the dose of drugs that led to an overdose death.
Although this logic seems reasonable and warranted, it is extraordinarily important that we tread carefully down this slippery slope. Laws that charge drug dealers with homicide do not take into account all of the extenuating circumstances that led to the individual distributing the drug. There is little to no consideration given to the environmental and social factors that we know contribute to a person deciding to sell drugs. There is a lack of recognition regarding the reality that many people who sell drugs are in fact people living with a substance use disorder themselves. There is a failure to acknowledge that for people who are living with a substance use disorder, if they hadn’t purchased the drug from that individual, they would have purchased it from another. And lastly, we are forgetting one daunting and glaring fact: declaring a war on drugs, in whatever form or fashion we take, has never worked for this country in the past and has in fact only created more problems. We ought to be asking ourselves “how exactly will this War On Drugs 2.0 be any different?”
With more people dying from drug-related deaths than car accidents in this country, it is understandable that we find ourselves grappling for quick fixes and what look on the surface to be plausible solutions. For family members who have lost a loved one, it is understandable that many see the drug dealer as the cause of death and seek retribution as well as a chance to prevent other families from ever experiencing such a horrific loss. I really do get where the movement to charge drug dealers with murder or attempted murder comes from.
Having said that however, I do caution all of us to be cognizant of not repeating history. The war on drugs was an epic failure and caused tremendous harm to individuals, families and communities. It is vitally important that we do not repeat the same mistakes of our past and cause even more harm than what has already been done. As a sense of urgency to do something runs throughout living rooms, bangs on system walls and serves as a topic of national conversation, it is imperative that we do not implement band-aid solutions that could lead to the problem seeping right on through and further staining our nation. We can feel this urgency, we can navigate this frustration, we can process the sadness, the anger and the fear - and we can make smart, humane, socially just decisions. I encourage all of us to truly do some introspection and engage in courageous conversation around this issue so that we may do justice this time.