Tyrique Wise was working at his self-owned painting and pressure washing business in Southern Shores, North Carolina, when the police came for him. The officer who slapped handcuffs on his wrists said that he was under arrest for a drug charge. Once in court, Tyrique found out what the charge really was: murder.
Tyrique protested. He had never killed anyone. Since his early 20s he had served probation a couple of times for possession of illicit drugs with intent to sell, but he had never been arrested for a violent crime.
When a judge read 32-year-old Tyrique the possible sentence that accompanied the charges—life in prison—the words took his breath away. As two of his relatives, who visit him weekly in jail, described to me, his thoughts flashed first to his 14-year-old daughter, Destiny, whom he had raised from infancy as a single father. Who would take care of her now?
Details surrounding the charge came out later. Earlier that day, April 16, 2018, personnel with the Dare County Sheriff’s Office had responded to a 911 call reporting an overdose in the small coastal town of Wanchese, North Carolina. The 22-year-old woman who had overdosed on heroin was taken to the hospital, treated and released. Later that afternoon, deputies received a second call for an overdose at the same residence. By the time they arrived to resuscitate a 40-year-old man, it was too late to save his life.
Deputies questioned the young woman who had previously overdosed about where she had obtained the heroin and her answers led them straight to Tyrique Wise. He was charged with second-degree murder. His trial date is set for December 3.
Split Rhetoric, Split Portrayals
Until a few years ago, it was practically unheard of to pursue murder charges for an overdose. But as drug-related deaths continue to rise across the United States, prosecutors and law enforcement are employing stiffer penalties that they say will deter people from selling drugs. Across the country the number of drug-induced homicide cases has skyrocketed, from about one per year during the 1990s to nearly 500 in 2017.
Meanwhile, rhetoric around drug-law violations is taking a sharp split. Until recent years, public discourse didn’t make too much distinction between people who used drugs and people who sold them. There have always been harsher penalties for drug sale versus possession, but users and sellers were, for the most part, equally feared and despised.
The opioid crisis has changed that. Calls to harshly punish people who sell drugs have continued, ranging up to and including the death penalty. In contrast, we regularly hear calls for compassion and treatment, rather than incarceration, for people addicted to drugs.
Some people say it’s because we’ve finally learned that we can’t arrest our way out of drug problems. Some say it’s because opioids have taken more lives than other drugs. Others point to the difference between the white, more affluent opioid users highlighted by today’s media and the stereotypical (though inaccurately so) image of a poor, black crack user and rest their case.
I’ll admit that years ago, when the punitive rhetoric towards drug users showed first signs of thaw, I felt hopeful. Earlier this decade I was a lobbyist, pushing for more sensible drug policies in North Carolina. I paraded white, middle-class moms who had lost children to drug overdose around the legislature and watched their tears melt the hearts of even the toughest drug warriors. The strategy worked. We persuaded the legislators to pass several new laws to legalize syringe exchange programs and prevent overdose deaths.
Although I cheered the victories, it was not lost on me that had I chosen advocates of a different race or class, our campaigns might not have won. Guilt pricked me sometimes, but I reassured myself that reforming drug laws would help people of all backgrounds—black or white, rich or poor—to avoid prison, addiction and death.
I am not so optimistic now.
Tyrique Wise is one of only three people who have ever been charged with drug-induced homicide in Dare County. Reading through newspaper articles about the separate cases against these three men, the contrasting portrayals of drug user and drug seller, white and black, could not be starker.
There are no breathless descriptions of how Tyrique loved fishing, how he and his uncle would trawl for speckled trout, how he raised a daughter alone.
One article opens with a striking photo of a girl, her long blond hair framing a soft, youthful face. In its opening lines, the article paints a portrait of Sarah, a sweet 16-year-old who loved fishing and cooking and whose life was tragically cut short by an accidental fentanyl overdose. The article explains her death and the subsequent investigation, which resulted in murder charges against the person who sold her the drugs.
The piece closes with a quote from the girl’s relative: “These drug dealers,” she says, “they don’t care.”
In contrast, the multitude of articles about Tyrique’s arrest show a mugshot of a bleary-eyed black man with the word ‘murder’ somewhere in the title. There are no breathless descriptions of how he also loved fishing, how he and his uncle would trawl for speckled trout along the pier in the summer, how he raised a daughter alone, or how he never meant for Sarah to die any more than she did.
But this is the narrative unfolding across the country in newsroom after newsroom: the innocent person whose life was brutally cut short by a predatory drug dealer.
Diverse Pathways Into Selling and Using
The trouble is that the story doesn’t fit the reality of how different communities and friendship groups obtain and use drugs. Many people who use drugs also sell them. Most people who sell drugs also use them. There is no stark divide between predator and prey. As with most things, reality is gray.
Ronald started selling drugs at age 10. He began using them at age 11 and describes himself as addicted by age 13.
Sam Malone began dabbling in marijuana and cocaine as a teenager. At 19 years old, living in Nebraska, he was introduced to meth. He quickly developed an expensive habit. After about a year of struggling to pay for drugs with what little he earned as a telemarketer, he started selling from his own supply.
“I would buy drugs, put aside half for myself and sell the other half to make money to buy more,” he tells Filter. His primary customers were his co-workers at the telemarketing company. “Even the supervisors bought from me.”
For Ronald Barksdale, who used to sell heroin and powder cocaine from a Baltimore housing project, a different pattern applied. He says that in his neighborhood, most kids sold drugs almost as a rite of passage.
“We all went through it together from little league baseball, to basketball, and then the drug game once we reached a certain age,” he tells Filter over the phone. That age was typically nine, he says. Ronald started selling drugs at age 10. He began using them at age 11 and describes himself as addicted by age 13. Now 56, it has taken him most of his intervening years to break the subsequent cycle of problematic use, sale and prison.
Some people, like Sam, start using drugs and then turn to selling. Others, like Ronald, begin selling and then start to use, but evidence indicates that most people involved with drugs occupy both roles.
According to a lengthy report on substance use in the American prison population, 85 percent of US prisoners convicted of drug-law violations meet the criteria for addiction. Even drug-induced homicide laws, purportedly designed to sweep up dealers, have so far primarily been used to convict family and friends of the deceased who may have shared or delivered the drugs that resulted in overdose, but often did not sell them.
Michael Collins, interim director of the Office of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, thinks the harsh rhetoric and policy against drug dealers is largely driven by a desire among law enforcement, prosecutors and policymakers to “do something” about drug overdose deaths.
“I think they want to appear innovative,” he tells Filter. “They are saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not like the 1980s. [This time] we are only locking up the bad guys.’”
Subtle Shifts, Sinister Pattern
In practice, of course, it is almost impossible to separate users from sellers. And this murky area, where almost anyone involved with drugs could be labeled a user or seller depending on how the arresting officer or the prosecutor chooses to categorize them, creates ripe opportunity for bias.
“The history of the drug war shows that when you increase the penalties for any drug, they are almost always applied in a racially biased way,” says Collins.
The data support his claim. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, white people in the United States were arrested at a rate of 362 per 100,000 for the possession of illicit drugs, while black people were arrested at more than double that rate: 815 per 100,000. When it came to the sale of illicit drugs, white people were arrested at a rate of 66 per 100,000 drugs, while black people—at 211 per 100,000—were arrested at more than triple that rate.
If these statistics matched actual demographic rates of drug use and sale, the stark differences might be explained. But they do not.
That same year, 2014, the National Survey of Drug Use and Health found similar rates of illicit drug use among black and white populations aged 12 and over. Lifetime use of illicit drugs is slightly higher among white people—53.8 percent versus 47.6 percent, while past-month illicit drug use is slightly higher among black people: 12.4 percent versus 10.4 percent. None of these statistics even come close to justifying the arrest disparities.
A similar picture plays out when we look at drug sale. The same survey reported similar rates of illicit drug selling among black and white youth in the past year, yet African Americans were arrested for dealing at more than triple the rate of their white counterparts.
The blue-eyed student is just a victim. He needs help. It’s those dealers we have to go after. They are the bad guys, peddling poison on purpose.
There is already evidence that these disparities are present in drug-induced homicide cases as well. In cases that involve a traditional “dealer,” over half the accused have been black or Hispanic and sold drugs to a white user. Additionally, the sentences meted out to people of color are on average four years longer than those for white people with the same charge.
Michelle Alexander warned us this was coming. In her 2013 bestseller, The New Jim Crow, the civil rights attorney painted a compelling portrait of how each time the United States starts to progress towards racial equity, a subtle shift—often merely a shift in narrative—turns the tide back again.
After slavery ended and ushered in the Reconstruction Era, during which 16 African Americans were elected to Congress and 600 more served on state legislatures, white America responded with Jim Crow laws and poll taxes. As a result, no African American served in Congress for the first three decades of the 20th century.
When anger boiled over during the 1960s and calls for change rang out from pulpit to mosque, the country passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Less than a decade later, the White House responded by declaring a War on Drugs that resulted in an increase of over 1,000 percent in the number of people incarcerated for drug-law violations—with black men incarcerated at a rate six times higher than white men.
The War on Drugs, as its architects have admitted, was a clever scheme, one wrapped in the velvet cape of “public safety” and the need to cleanse the streets of criminal elements. It was a scheme we could tell ourselves was blind to race, even as our prisons fill with black and brown people at a pace so divorced from actual crime rates that it took willful ignorance not to see what was really happening.
But then the War on Drugs ran into a problem: white America’s voracious appetite for opioids. The opioid crisis, the most deadly public health crisis in US history, claims tens of thousands of lives every year—and for the first time, 80 percent of them are white.
In the past few years we have witnessed the nation’s response to this, the shift towards compassion for drug users, the calls for treatment over incarceration. The same people who have been trigger-happy for decades, content to use prison as a warehouse for the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill and all the other people society would prefer not to look at, have miraculously found their consciences.
It is hard to convince the nation that the blue-eyed, straight-A student from suburbia deserves to spend half his life in prison for misusing prescriptions. So we changed the narrative again.
The blue-eyed student is just a victim. He needs help. It’s those dealers we have to go after. They are the bad guys, peddling poison on purpose. Never mind that our blue-eyed friend is probably selling his pills as well.
It is so obvious that this is a reboot of the same old war. It is painful to watch how well it is working.