How Should Drug Policy Reform Engage “Dealers”?

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    People who use marijuana seem to be the target audience for cannabis legalization, which has taken effect in 11 states and Washington, DC, and has led 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to all support either decriminalizing or legalizing the plant. Yet the other side of the illicit drug market—the suppliers—has often been ignored by mainstream drug policy reform agendas. Now, advocates are calling for the reform of laws that disproportionately target low-level drug sellers, as a report published by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) on December 17 outlines.

    “In this report, Drug Policy Alliance is arguing [that] we shouldn’t throw drug sellers under the bus,” Aliza Cohen, a DPA* researcher, told Filter. “Over the years, we’ve seen people call for more sympathy for drug users. We’ve seen a lot of politicians across the board, Democrats and Republicans, say, Let’s not go after drug users—but let’s go after drug sellers.

    As drug-involved deaths reached historic highs in recent years, politicians across party lines have advocated for, and legislated, shifts towards public health responses to drug possession—ranging from diversion programs to sentence expungement to decriminalization.

    Yet the demonization of drug sellers continues. Defendants can face enhanced sentences for selling drugs, and can be punished with homicide charges for delivering a drug that’s involved in a death.

    The White House supports this approach. Trump’s rhetoric around the “opioid crisis” makes use of racist and baseless claims. He’s described Mexican people who sell drugs as “monsters” and, at his campaign launch in 2015, generalized undocumented immigrants as “bringing drugs” into the country. He has also said that, “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we’re wasting our time [..] And that toughness includes the death penalty”—a policy implemented in China that he has applauded.

    Binarizing drug users and drug sellers misses the reality of who constitutes the lower levels of the drug market. DPA’s report “question[s] what actually constitutes a drug seller,” Matt Sutton, DPA’s media relations director, told Filter. It highlights, for example, that nearly half of one survey’s participants who reportedly sold drugs reported behavior that met criteria for a substance use disorder.

    People who distribute drugs to others are often well known to their customers and may even use with the them. Drug-induced homicide prosecutions sometimes end up “target[ing] fellow drug users and friends of the person who died of an overdose,” notes the report, which only makes use conditions riskier—such as by discouraging people from contacting emergency medical services out of fear of prosecution.

    Applicable laws have racially disproportionate impacts, DPA reports, pitting people of color as “kingpins” even though white folks are slightly more likely to sell drugs in reality. In 2014, Black people were three times more likely to be arrested for selling or distributing drugs, and in 2012, almost 80 percent of federal prisoners in for drug offenses were people of color.

    DPA is calling for the consideration of drug selling “outside of the failed apparatus of criminalization,” as Sutton put it. The organization recommends that law enforcement should exercise discretion and prioritize cases that involve violence and coercion; and that policy makers should axe mandatory minimum sentences, repeal drug-induced homicide laws, expand protections for people who seek medical attention for someone experiencing an overdose, and boost funding for diversion programs. Service providers should also start equipping sellers with harm reduction supplies and information, the report urges.

    But DPA isn’t yet calling for the total decriminalization of drug sales. Although Sutton and Cohen seem to support this idea in spirit, it doesn’t fit within their pragmatic view of what could realistically happen soon. “That’s not going to be a winning issue⁠—to go to legislatures and say we’re going to introduce a bill that would legalize drug sellers,” said Sutton.

    Rather, DPA’s report functions to “open up the debate to be more nuanced and recognize that there are many different kinds of ‘sales,'” said Sutton. “We want a conversation. We want this to be a collaborative effort among social justice organizations. To get the conversation going is the first step in creating any meaningful change.”

    * The Drug Policy Alliance has provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a drug war journalism diversity fellowship.

    Photograph of a protester in front of a DPA poster; courtesy of DPA via Twitter.

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