For the first time in US political history, drug policy reform and harm reduction have taken center stage at presidential debates and on the campaign trail of the 2020 hopefuls.
With criminal justice reform and the overdose crisis at the forefront, many of the candidates have taken strong and admirable stances, favoring public health-centered approaches in lieu of criminal ones. The candidates universally support expanding access to medication-assisted treatment and the overdose antidote naloxone; several candidates support supervised consumption sites; Mayor Pete Buttigieg (who has now dropped out of the race) supports decriminalizing the possession of all drugs; and Senator Elizabeth Warren recently dropped an expansive, equity-driven marijuana plan.
Unfortunately, that progress and compassion have been met with harmful, outdated notions from other candidates about people who use drugs.
During the February 25 debate in South Carolina, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said of drugs, “We should not make this a criminal thing if you have a small amount”—only to follow that with the caveat that “dealers” should be criminalized regardless.
Separating “users” and “dealers,” and ascribing moral judgment and criminal punishment accordingly, is inaccurate as well as wrong.
This false dichotomy set up between “users” and “dealers” is indicative of Bloomberg’s persistent and troubling urge to criminalize drugs and the people who use them. Although it may be convenient to rely on this framing—where users are “good” and dealers are “bad”—this narrative is over-simplified and, as it turns out, very harmful.
The practice of separating “users” and “dealers,” and ascribing moral judgment and criminal punishment accordingly, is inaccurate as well as wrong. In reality, as a recent Drug Policy Alliance report—Rethinking the Drug Dealer—outlined, there is significant overlap between the two groups.
In fact, 43 percent of people who reported selling drugs in the past year met the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder. And laws that criminalize selling drugs are often written so broadly that they capture people who do not sell at all.
As the deadly and unrelenting overdose crisis continues to take lives prematurely, we must center public health over punitive measures. People who use drugs, especially those who are most at risk of overdose, undoubtedly need access to treatment, naloxone and other social supports. They need to be met with compassion over stigma.
But when people who use drugs and people who sell them are largely indistinguishable, applying a public health approach solely to the former, while retaining a criminal justice approach to the latter, essentially negates the entire practice.
More broadly, it is disappointing that Mayor Bloomberg is still promoting punitive drug policies at a time when the consequences of drug prohibition are more significant than ever.
Fear of police involvement drives people to take more risks with their health and drug use— opting to use drugs without knowing their potency, using alone or in a hurry, and not calling for help in the case of an overdose in fear of prosecution. After all, the effects of an arrest or conviction for drug possession and sales last a lifetime, affecting someone’s ability to get a job, secure housing, obtain federal benefits or receive asylum in the United States.
In more severe cases, calling for help in the case of an overdose can even legally implicate someone in the death—as is the case with drug-induced homicide laws, which mainly charge friends and family, despite being billed as a way to go after “dealers.”
Even though white people are slightly more likely to report having sold drugs before, Black and Latinx people are disproportionately incarcerated.
In his criminal justice reform plan, Bloomberg correctly notes that the prohibition of marijuana has fallen largely on communities of color: “while white and Black people in the US use marijuana at roughly equal rates, Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession.”
However, he fails to mention that the same holds true for drug selling. Even though white people are slightly more likely to report having sold drugs before, Black and Latinx people are disproportionately incarcerated for drug sales.
Bloomberg’s hardline position on “dealers” is simply a mechanism to continue the discriminatory policies of the past—which is disturbing, considering his controversial history with stop-and-frisk laws during his tenure as mayor of New York City.
Decades of a failed War on Drugs have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of supply-side criminalization. It doesn’t make people safer, it doesn’t make people stop using drugs, and it doesn’t make people stop selling drugs. It only drives people underground and away from resources like treatment, syringe exchanges or drug checking that might make all the difference.
We cannot continue to write and implement public policy that is predicated on the outdated notion of “drug users” versus “drug sellers.” We need a holistic approach that puts public health and racial justice above all else.
Drug Policy Action is the advocacy and political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance. The Drug Policy Alliance has provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.