Federal prosecutors in New York charged four men on February 2 in connection with the accidental overdose death of actor Michael K. Williams, of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire fame. Williams’ death in his Brooklyn apartment, on September 6, 2021, was ruled to be caused by a combination of several opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, as well as cocaine.
Federal and city law enforcement officials arrested Irvin Cartagena, 39; Hector Robles, 57; Luis Cruz, 56; and Carlos Macci, 70. They charged the four with narcotics conspiracy to distribute fentanyl-laced heroin.
They further allege that the defendants knew Williams died from the drugs they sold him, but “continued to sell fentanyl-laced heroin, in broad daylight” in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The defendants could each face up to 40 years in prison for the conspiracy charge. Cartagena, who was allegedly shown on surveillance footage handing Williams the drugs, is additionally charged with causing death through the narcotics conspiracy, which carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 20 years and a maximum sentence of life.
Far from rethinking the drug war in this context, lawmakers have only gotten more aggressive when it comes to fentanyl.
Nationally, overdose deaths have risen in every one of the last 20 years except 2018, with fentanyl increasingly involved. Yet far from rethinking the drug war in this context, lawmakers have only gotten more aggressive when it comes to fentanyl. The Trump administration implemented “emergency scheduling” of fentanyl analogues, which heavily restricted a whole class of fentanyl-like drugs and subjected people possessing or selling them to severe penalties.
In September 2021, President Biden proposed making that policy permanent. Instead, it was extended temporarily again until February 18, 2022. Under these guidelines, federal prosecutors and courts have broad powers to pursue and convict people on even minor fentanyl charges. Federal law enforcement agencies have ramped up fentanyl seizures in recent years, together with prosecutions of people for trafficking—overwhelmingly Black or Latinx defendants, and low-level couriers.
Sheila Vakharia, PhD, deputy director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, explained that these increasing fentanyl cases are typically far more complex than police present them. “In some markets throughout the US, fentanyl has so saturated drug supplies that it’s just the new normal,” she told Filter. “Fentanyl might be the only option available, and many users are aware of this and want it anyway.”
“We don’t know where in the supply chain fentanyl is added, so it’s possible these defendants weren’t aware they were selling it to him.”
People who sell drugs are routinely demonized and scapegoated for the crisis of drug deaths. But none wish to kill their clients, and many are supportive and take steps to keep the people they sell to safer.
“We don’t know where in the supply chain fentanyl is added,” Dr. Vakharia pointed out of the current case, “so it’s possible these defendants weren’t themselves aware they were selling it to him.” Without drug checking tools, fentanyl and heroin are indistinguishable prior to use.
If the four men are convicted and sentenced, we can be sure it won’t affect the fentanyl market in New York or elsewhere.
“Despite all these strategies and punitive approaches being ramped up in recent years,” Dr. Vakharia said, “fentanyl is continuing to be used widely, overdose deaths involving fentanyl only continue to be on the rise, and fentanyl continues to be an entrenched part of drug markets and is emerging in markets where it didn’t exist five years ago.”
Though fentanyl is up to 50 times more potent than heroin, there are perfectly rational reasons some may prefer it: It’s cheaper, stronger and often easier to find. But using it along with certain other drugs—as Williams did, and whether the person does so knowingly or not—significantly increases risks. Most so-called “overdose” deaths involve drug combinations. A reduction in a person’s opioid tolerance due to inconsistent use or a period of abstinence (forced in many cases) is another risk factor, as is using drugs alone.
What could save the lives of people like Michael Williams? One answer is just up the river from where he died. New York City opened the nation’s first two legally sanctioned safe consumption sites, also known as overdose prevention centers, in November 2021. They averted 63 overdoses in just their first three weeks.
People can also do things at home to reduce their risks. Using low-cost fentanyl test strips can detect presence of fentanyl in a drug batch. And although this became harder during the pandemic, using drugs in company can also keep people safer, especially if naloxone is close at hand (it’s easily and freely available in New York City). A program coming to the city soon will install free naloxone vending machines in each borough, making the lifesaving medicine that much easier to reach.
“We have to acknowledge there are many people who continue to fear calling 911 for contact with the criminal-legal system.”
We don’t know if Williams was alone when he died. New York State has a “Good Samaritan” law that’s supposed to prevent you from being arrested if you call 911 to report an overdose. But understandably, people may still hesitate to call for help.
“We have to acknowledge there are many people who continue to fear calling 911 for contact with the criminal-legal system,” Vakharia said. “Without knowing the demographics of who he was with, they probably still had a reluctance to call for help in that moment and be there when authorities arrived.”
Ultimately, legalizing drugs and giving people a regulated, safe supply with known dosages and no dangerous adulterants would be the surest way to reduce deaths. Canada already offers various limited forms of safe supply, providing people at risk with pharmaceutical-grade drugs on prescription. And a movement to expand and de-medicalize this model by creating local buyers’ clubs is gathering steam.
Dr. Vakharia is a member of the board of directors of The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter. DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.