In popular culture, people who sell drugs are stereotyped as remorseless monsters, like the loathsome Mikey Forrester from the book Trainspotting, who’d kill their own grannies for 20 bucks. And news media depictions of “dealers” are heavily racialized, peddling an Innocent White Victim narrative in the overdose-crisis era.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie or read a book with a sympathetic, well-meaning character who sold heroin or so-called “hard” drugs. Even if sellers of marajuana or “club” drugs have, on occasion, been portrayed more sympathetically in recent times, like Jay and Silent Bob from the films of Kevin Smith.
I once had a person insist on seeing my ID, because I looked like I might be underage.
Fictional dope “pushers” often try to get white middle-class suburban kids “hooked”—something that always seemed hilariously unrealistic to me. In my experience, some won’t even sell heroin to people unless they can prove that they already use, usually by showing their track marks. I even once had a person insist on seeing my ID, because I looked like I might be underage.
I have certainly encountered unpleasant sellers. These include some who sexually harassed or belittled me, or who pressured women to exchange sex for drugs. One I briefly knew kept giving me free drugs, then tried to coerce me into doing sex work at parties he hosted, which led me to stop speaking to him. But then, I have encountered equally unpleasant and sexist people in many occupations.
My long-time regular heroin seller was quite different. I haven’t seen him since the pandemic began, and have been unable to contact him—his phone number no longer works—but I doubt I’ll ever forget him.
A quiet, thoughtful middle-aged Black man and fellow heroin user, he operated his business from an SUV he kept parked in a certain parking lot downtown. I have a lot of warm memories of him. He always treated me, and all of his customers, with respect and consideration.
When a number of people were robbed near where he usually parked, he agreed to meet me in a safer neighborhood. And if I didn’t have cash on me, he’d front me (this was mostly because I always paid him the next time; I was careful to only use when I could afford to).
He kept naloxone in his car in case someone overdosed. After all, he liked his customers.
When I showed up at his car window already in withdrawal, he’d let me inject a small dose in the backseat. If I’d run out of clean needles or sterile water, he’d let me have some from the large bag he kept hidden under the passenger seat. He also warned me whenever the drugs were stronger than usual. And he kept naloxone in his car in case someone overdosed. After all, he liked his customers.
In short, like many people who sell drugs, he practiced harm reduction.
As well as kind, I found him interesting. When I stopped by to pick up my drugs, I’d often stay for a little while, just to chat. He’d often ask about my latest article or artistic project. Sometimes I brought him printed-out stories to read, or books I was finished with. Like me, he enjoyed mysteries solved by Great Detectives. We often talked about our mutual fondness for Agatha Christie, especially her stories starring Hercule Poirot. He liked Poirot’s rather flamboyant sense of style—the shiny shoes, the suits, the famous moustaches.
I think he liked talking to me because he was lonely. Most of his buyers just stopped by the car for a second to pick their drugs up.
Unfortunately, after he was stopped by the police one too many times, he no longer allowed me to sit and talk with him. Instead, he tried to get me to leave as quickly as possible, so that neither of us would look suspicious. He also stopped letting me take drugs in the back of his car. Though I didn’t mind. After all, I liked him and didn’t want him to get arrested again. He was a friendly, well-meaning person who deserved a better life.
Over the years I bought from him, I picked up pieces of his story. He’d grown up in a rough neighborhood and gone to jail numerous times on drug-related charges. At one point he’d been in college and studied psychology, but his drug use had gotten him kicked out, so he started selling drugs to support himself.
He had a son whom he loved very much and visited whenever possible. Apparently the son was a rather good student, which he was especially proud of. He displayed a photo of the kid in the front of his car.
Despite all he’d been through, he was surprisingly religious and truly believed in God. Yet he didn’t consider his work sinful or immoral. Instead, he thought that by doing his best to provide real drugs that people wanted, charge his customers fairly and warn everyone about strong batches, he was doing the right thing. He was doing his best with the hand he’d been dealt.
Once I started asking around, I heard a lot of stories about drug sellers who became, quite simply, friends.
Of course, there will always be some people who use violence and intimidation, or who try to take sexual or financial advantage of drug users. But most, like the rest of us, are just trying to get by in a difficult world, sometimes on the margins of society. Quite obviously, they have as many friends, loved ones, personality types and non-drug interests as anyone else. They are certainly not to blame for the overdose crisis, and none want their customers to die.
More than that, once I started asking around, I heard a lot of stories about drug sellers who became, quite simply, friends. Garth Mullins of the podcast Crackdown told me about a seller who used to bring his cat treats and toys. The same person apparently warned him not to buy any heroin after a major bust because of the decrease in quality.
Another person—we’ll call him Alex—told me that while past sellers he’d gone to to buy his preferred OxyContin had preferred not to chat, his current source is “really nice” and cares about his well-being. They often hang out together playing video games. Alex’s seller is a former heroin user himself, and apparently shares Alex’s concerns about the extent of his opioid use. With this man’s support, Alex has been trying to cut down on Oxy with the help of kratom and marijuana.
Another story stood out to me because for how it defies stereotypes about both drug users and drug sellers—and illustrates how that distinction, regularly applied in persecutions like drug-induced homicide charges, is often blurred and arbitrary.
A man we’ll call Joseph once knew a woman, “Sarah,” who’d sell her prescription hydromorphone to pay for cocaine. She was enstranged from her family due to her drug use and lesbian identity.
Sadly, in the 1990s, Sarah contracted HIV from a used needle, which eventually progressed to AIDS. In the last months of her life, as she was dying of an inoperable spine abscess in 2017, Joseph would pick up extra hydromorphone from the pharmacy for Sarah when her morphine drip wasn’t enough. He’d keep watch while his partner, who was also Sarah’s friend, snuck the drugs into her IV.
Joseph got along with Sarah so well because they were both, to use his words, “throwaway people”—their families and society at large had cast them aside, and they bonded over that. As an outsider myself, as a queer heroin user who has experienced family rejection, this is something I understand.
I haven’t seen or spoken to my favorite seller in nearly a year. But whether or not I find him again after the pandemic, I will keep many fond memories. He treated me far more kindly than most of the doctors, psychiatrists and other professionals I’ve encountered in the past few years. To him, I was a real human being, not just some dumb junkie.
I just hope so much that he has survived the pandemic and the associated increase in overdoses. He is a good person, with more empathy than most. And there are many more like him.
Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash