Tributes have flowed after the death on September 6 of Michael K. Williams, the beloved actor and advocate for marijuana legalization and harm reduction. Besides his roles in shows like The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, Williams was admired for being incredibly honest about his struggles with substance use disorder, the risks prohibition forced him to take, and how his lived experience shaped his life.
We should wait until his cause of death is confirmed, rather than speculate. Sadly, some people weren’t about to let a chance go begging.
This opportunistic tweet from Kevin Sabet—the former White House Office of National Drug Control Policy advisor, founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and prominent supporter of prohibition—uses a tragic death to spread disinformation. It needs to be refuted.
For a start, there have been zero overdose deaths recorded in around 120 safe consumption sites (SCS) operating across the world, where naloxone and trained staff are always on hand. Further, according to this policy brief by AMFAR (the Foundation for AIDS Research) among much other evidence, SCS resulted in positive health outcomes, do not increase crime, have many beneficial impacts on the lives of people who use drugs—including reductions in disease and risky behaviors, and increased uptake of treatment options—and are demonstrably cost-effective. Research shows unequivocally that SCS save lives.
Sabet’s comment that “‘pure’ heroin” wouldn’t have saved Williams’ life attempts to undermine the efficacy of safe supply. Experts in Switzerland, where a safe supply of heroin has been part of the country’s response to drug-related harms since the 1990s, would disagree. So would those who have seen a safe supply of heroin used for years as an effective intervention in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Portugal—and those in Canada, where various forms of safe supply have more recently been used as a key harm reduction intervention.
Sabet admitted that during his time in the Obama administration, he understood the potential impact of restricting opioid prescribing.
Low-barrier access to quality-controlled, pharmaceutical-grade drugs removes the severe dangers posed by an adulterated street supply, where fentanyl and its analogues are widely present even in drugs not sold as opioids. We don’t know whether it would have saved Michael K. Williams’ life; we don’t know the circumstances of his death. At a population level, however, its lifesaving impact is not in doubt.
But Sabet had just recently made his position on safe supply clear.
No one is defending the Sacklers’ marketing practices and dishonesty. But it is a fact that overdose deaths, overwhelmingly involving unregulated opioids, surged after the national crackdown on opioid prescribing.
Notably, as reported in this 2015 Huffington Post piece, Sabet admitted that during his time in the Obama administration, policymakers, including himself, understood the potential impact of restricting prescribing. But they were willing to risk sending people to the illicit market. “We always were concerned about heroin…” Sabet said, “But we weren’t about to let these pill mills flourish in the name of worrying about something that hadn’t happened yet.”
It has happened now.
Opposition to safe supply, like opposition to harm reduction itself, is based largely on a moralistic dislike for a non-judgmental approach that supports the agency of people who use drugs.
According to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 93,000 people in the United States lost their lives to overdose (mostly drug combinations) in 2020—a record toll in an epidemic that shows no sign of abating. It is almost impossible to comprehend such a scale of loss. Thinking of celebrities, like Prince, Tom Petty or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, can put human faces to the impact. But ever-increasing numbers of us have lost our own loved ones.
Researchers, reformers, politicians and law enforcement professionals in the United States and across the globe have recognized we can no longer rely on our long-established system of criminalization and urging people to abstain from drug use. The required paradigm shift toward compassionate and evidence-based practices is long overdue and extremely urgent. Yet people like Sabet, whose involvement in three White House administrations still lends him credibility in some eyes, continue to push harmfully in the opposite direction.
It cannot be allowed to stand. Reform organizations and advocates, including me, have taken Sabet to task over the years. I have written about the rank hypocrisy of his organization when it comes to cannabis policy and harm reduction, and have critiqued his belief that the racist criminalization of our most vulnerable populations is merely “mean-spirited.”
In the past I believed that Sabet operated from a place of well intentioned ignorance, and that we shared the basic view that our drug policies should improve health and save lives. In private, I have often said that Sabet’s privilege has spared him personal knowledge of how drug users’ lives are impacted by criminalization and policing.
But like many legislators who propose draconian drug laws, Sabet is a callous opportunist. He uses drug deaths as victim porn to induce moral outrage to maintain the status quo. He is prone to gross distortions—as when he testified to the Kentucky legislature regarding medical marijuana that “we see adulterated products in a lot of these black market materials, like fentanyl and others.” (There are no documented instances of overdose from fentanyl-laced cannabis, for good reason.)
And then there was the time he deliberately and falsely implied to his followers that Oregon’s Measure 110 legalized heroin:
Despite over a trillion dollars spent on enforcement and interdiction since the inception of the Controlled Substances Act 50 years ago, all of North America is now in the midst of a fourth wave of overdose deaths and the constant reality of a dangerous, poisoned illicit drug supply.
If we are to achieve our goals of saving lives, of ending mass incarceration, and uprooting systemic inequities behind racial, economic and other disparities, we must implement 21st century drug strategies. We already know what many of these are, even if adjustments will be needed as we learn and progress.
Sabet’s drug-free America mantra has been discredited for so long that its repetition can only be seen as cynical.
Sabet and his organization are a barrier. His work increases stigma, provides policymakers with an excuse to drag their feet, and contributes, frankly, to the conditions that have produced drug-related suffering and death on an unprecedented scale.
I’m not certain what he meant when he wrote that Williams “needed the things drugs DON’T give!” Housing, mental health support and health care are among the things that many people who use drugs need. But Sabet’s drug-free America mantra has been discredited for so long that its repetition can only be seen as cynical.
The problems we face are complex and intersecting. I know that decriminalization, syringe programs, safe consumption sites, safe supply and other interventions won’t save every life. But I know they have saved many—and will save many more. I know that they each form a part of what we need.
And if Michael K. Williams’ death were to turn out to be from overdose, we’d know that he, like hundreds of thousands of others, deserved so much better.