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It’s not ‘drug dealers’ who are killing us, it’s drug stigma


It’s not ‘drug dealers’ who are killing us, it’s drug stigma

May 26, 2023 | 1:08 pm ET
By Danielle Russell, PhD
It’s not ‘drug dealers’ who are killing us, it’s drug stigma
Photo by Getty Images

“If I die as a result of a drug overdose, I request that no one be charged, prosecuted, or held criminally responsible for my death. This decision is being made in part to challenge the oppressive and false dichotomy between people who use drugs and people who sell drugs. We are, more often than not, one and the same.”

That’s the first paragraph of my Do Not Prosecute request, which was originally written by the Urban Survivor’s Union and adapted as an addendum to my living will. As someone with a history of drug use, I know I’m at a statistically higher risk of dying from an overdose than most. I also know that the person providing the drugs could easily be my friend or a family member — and, almost certainly, someone else who uses drugs. 

When I used illicit drugs, the people I bought from were not predators. They were people in my community, and we were all aware of the risks. In actuality, the biggest threats to our health and lives were the legal barriers that forced us to use drugs unsafely. 

The idea that dealers are taking advantage of vulnerable users is not only inaccurate, but it discounts the autonomy of people who use drugs. Yet this false narrative has fueled bad policy that resulted in Arizona being the 5th highest incarcerator in the United States and has perpetuated drug stigma that inhibits common-sense policy change. 

This year’s slate of bad legislation would have created felony murder charges for selling drugs to someone who later died of an overdose and increased prison time for selling small amounts of fentanyl. While most bills have failed, House Bill 2802, which lowers the statutory threshold for fentanyl, could still pass. Pending a final vote in the House, the bill would mandate harsher penalties for possessing an arbitrary amount of drugs, resulting in a typical sentence of 10 years and increasing the prison population by 3,200 people.

None of these bills should have been proposed in the first place. There is no proof that longer prison sentences would curb Arizona’s fentanyl crisis. On the contrary, data shows no correlation between the number of people in prison for drug convictions and drug use in a state. Elected officials must accept that drug use is a public health issue. Rather than punishing us, they need to give us the best chance at survival. 

While meaningful harm reduction policies have passed in recent years, there are still immense barriers to accessing and distributing resources that make consumption safer. On top of that, people who use drugs overwhelmingly face systemic discrimination when seeking employment, housing, health care, and services. These challenges only increase when the justice system comes into play. 

If I had a criminal record, I would never have been able to pursue a doctorate and use my research to support the community I live in. But even now, with advanced degrees, access to ongoing treatment, a consistent income and housing stability, I still experience the stigma that comes with past drug use. Until elected leaders truly believe in shifting this paradigm, we will not see an end to the overdose crisis that is killing five Arizonans every day

We need lawmakers to fully recognize people’s humanity and pass laws that empower them to protect themselves — regardless of what substances they use. Pushing the same failed policies that incarcerate and stigmatize people who use drugs will only lead to more suffering and death. Impactful and proven steps can be taken to prevent overdose, reduce other health risks, and improve stability. But in order to get there, we must confront drug stigma head-on and treat people who use drugs with dignity.