The Monday edition of the New York Times featured a lengthy article highlighting the prominent role played by the police in responding to the current opioid crisis. In “When Opioid Addicts Find an Ally in Blue,” reporter Al Baker celebrates this shift in police function. He outlines the way that officers have been incorporating elements of a public health response into their work, while simultaneously stepping up their efforts to criminalize – in some cases laying homicide charges against – people who sell drugs. His argument rests on two fallacies: that channeling a public health response through the police is optimal or desirable, and that aggressively punishing those who sell drugs – appallingly referred to by a quoted police officer as ‘cockroaches’ – will help save the lives of drug users.
Baker lauds the shift to viewing the opioid epidemic as a health crisis – but with any other kind of health crisis, the idea of channeling a public health response through a law enforcement framework would seem bizarre. A serious public health approach demands skepticism of the idea that police should be responding to problematic drug use any more than they should be responding to measles outbreaks.
Shifting our response to drug use and possession from criminalization to public health demands a corresponding shift of resources from the criminal legal system to the public health system. A police department shifting existing resources from drug enforcement to public health is preferable to the continued criminalization of people who use drugs, but we must be wary of so-called ‘reforms’ that involve increasing police budgets to augment their public health function. We need to fund those who have decades of experience saving lives by providing evidence-based, harm reduction-oriented health services to people who use drugs.
Baker’s second claim is that, while taking a lenient approach to people who use drugs, the police should aggressively criminalize people who sell drugs. He implies that catching and prosecuting “suppliers” and “dealers”, “investigating overdoses with the rigor of homicides”, will keep people who use drugs safer.
High-potency opioids in the drug supply - such as fentanyl and carfentanil – do play a significant role in the current crisis. But all evidence suggests that these substances are mixed with heroin or other drugs high up the supply chain, likely outside of the United States. In most cases, low-level drug sellers have no way of knowing the potency of their product; charging these people with homicide is nonsensical and draconian. Some low-level drug sellers are also users, many do not engage in any kind of violence, and some merely share small amounts of drugs with friends and family. Perpetuating the myth that overdose victims die because they purchase drugs from people who maliciously seek to kill their customers is a dangerous distraction from talking about reforms that will actually address the current crisis.
Harshly punishing people who sell drugs is a cruel charade that may make us feel like we are doing something to address the opioid epidemic, but in reality we are merely wasting money and needlessly ruining lives while doing nothing to keep people who use drugs safer. All evidence suggests that trying to reduce drug use by restricting the drug supply doesn’t work: every arrested low-level seller will be replaced by another seller, meeting the same demand for opioids from the same unsafe drug supply. People convicted of drug selling offenses are released from prison with criminal records that leave them less likely to find licit employment than they were before; many return to drug selling. This cycle does nothing to halt the epidemic.
An evidence-based approach to the opioid crisis requires serious investment in harm reduction services, evidence-based treatment and quality mental health care – and we need to invest directly in people who are the real experts in this work. If we continue to look to the police for answers, we’re not going to find many.
Alyssa Stryker is DPA’s Criminal Justice Reform Manager.