I strongly support harm reduction strategies for fighting the opiate epidemic, including the use of drug courts and diversion programs, recovery high schools, sober living communities, mass access to evidence-based treatment, (very well managed and executed) medication-assisted treatment, needle exchange programs, widespread narcan , distribution and safe use zones. However, unlike most other activists focused on harm reduction strategies, I also support incarceration for active dealers who kill people.
Harm reduction strategists will tell you that the War on Drugs has been a failure and in many, if not most ways it has been. Locking people up for marijuana possession is absurd and useless, and in fact, locking people up for ANY drug possession when there’s no clear intent to sell obviously makes no sense, yet our prisons are full of people jailed for just this reason.
In many cases of drug dealing, especially at much lower levels of sales or in cases of two friends drug sharing rather than actively selling, these people are addicted too, and in these common types of cases, drug court with diversion or intensive treatment during relatively brief incarceration with supervised parole and proper support after release makes sense, with the idea being that if the dealer is no longer using, he or she will no longer need to deal drugs to support their own habits. Many addicts who commit crimes to support their own habits will even tell you that incarceration saved their lives.
But drug dealers who are actively, recklessly killing people through their behavior and who keep selling even after they’ve killed someone MUST be locked up. Why? Because if you don’t remove them from the community they are very likely to kill other people.
For example, in my son Henry’s case, no one really disputes who specifically gave him the massive dose of methadone that killed him. We know who the two dealers who dosed Henry with the methadone are, and we also know who the third dealer (who knew via phone calls through the night that Henry was dying on the floor of the home of dealer #1 and dealer #2 ) was as well.
However the Knox County Sheriff’s Department didn’t arrest any of these three people – didn’t get them off the street and out of our community.
Approximately 18 months later, utilizing a brave friend of Henry’s who was willing to wear a wire to buy drugs from each of these three people, the Knoxville Police Department working with the DEA arrested the 3 dealers for, you guessed it, dealing drugs. In the case of one of the dealers, he sold the informant methadone, the exact same drug that killed my son. One of the dealers sold the drugs to the informant while her own child was in the house and one of them sold her wares near a school. And the brave informant who made these arrests happen was, like Henry, just a teenager.
This means that even after they killed one vulnerable teenager via their reckless and active drug dealing, because they weren’t arrested and taken out of the community, these three dealers continued to deal the same drugs, even to kids just like Henry. As far as we know, they didn’t actually kill anyone else during that 18 month period but we really don’t know that for sure, and the odds are that if they kept recklessly selling, they would eventually kill someone else. Today they are already out of jail and how do you suppose they’re making a living? I’ll bet I know. (Drug dealer #3 died relatively recently, and according to her obituary, apparently quite suddenly at the age of 54.)
So what do you do with people like this? All three dealers were also addicts themselves but 2 of the 3 of them also made their entire living from selling drugs and committing other crimes (the 3rd worked in her father’s successful dental practice even though her whole family knew she was a drug addict). In at least some cases, these dealers were getting the drugs they sold from “legitimate” prescriptions from actual doctors who provably knew that drug dealer #1 was a drug addict himself (they knew because the doctors were prescribing the methadone ostensibly as part of medication assisted treatment to help drug dealer #1 get off of other opiates), and yet these doctors didn’t follow the specific laws in place for prescribing methadone as part of a medication-assisted therapy program (methadone is a potentially very dangerous opiate when prescribed or used without strict regulation).
So what do you do with people like this, people who kill other addicts via their own active, reckless, continuing behavior? Because they happen to be addicts themselves, do you simply leave these people who have already killed at least one person out on the streets to keep selling because you believe the War on Drugs to be a failure? After they’ve KILLED someone, yet keep dealing, do you offer them voluntary treatment that has an exceptionally high failure rate? Do you send them to voluntary Narcotics Anonymous meetings in hopes they’ll just stop dealing the drugs that are likely to kill again?
And what about the doctor who was writing the prescription for the opiates that killed my son, opiates that these dealers were still selling 18 months later, yet again to another teenager? What do you do with the doctor?
Unlike so many of the other harm reduction activists with whom I speak and work with, I believe that there ARE circumstances where you have to incarcerate drug dealers. And Henry’s case was one of them. These people are reckless murderers who showed no remorse for killing one vulnerable, addicted kid with opiates yet continued to sell it to others. In my opinion, in a situation like this, you have no reasonable choice but to get these people out of our community for as long as possible.
Yes, we can and probably should offer them proper addiction treatment WHILE they’re locked up but unless and until some parole board honestly believes that these people no longer pose the same threat to society that they clearly posed when they were locked up, they should stay locked up, away from our vulnerable teenagers, our brothers, sisters, coworkers and friends. And when I refer to the people who should be locked up, that includes the doctor who could be proved to be knowingly prescribing opiates outside the defined ethics and regulations of his or her profession, all for increased income, not because he or she is an addict.
So this is where I stand, and for those who claim every aspect of the War on Drugs has been a failure I posit this conclusion: it’s a failure at least in part because we’re locking the wrong people up for the wrong reasons and for the wrong amounts of time. A guy found to have a baggie of pot in his car at a traffic stop should not be criminally prosecuted. The same guy found with a small amount of cocaine in his car during another traffic stop should probably be sent to drug court for treatment and diversion. Perhaps, in a case like this, because there was no obvious intent to sell, there should be no criminal system involvement at all. But an active drug dealer who sells opiates, who kills a teenager, but who then keeps dealing, meaning he or she is likely to kill again SHOULD be locked up.
I still cry every day – yes, every day – over the loss of my teenager. And I also cry when I think about the other people these reckless dealers also might have killed or still kill after they killed Henry. My 18 year old son was a drug addict. I know and accept this. But he didn’t deserve the death penalty due to his addiction.
Lock up those drug dealers who kill – especially those who kill the youngest and thus the most vulnerable among us – and who have proved they’re likely to kill again.
Lock them up.