Policymakers in the United States increasingly recognize that drug use should be treated as a public health issue instead of a criminal issue. Most, however, continue to support harsh criminal sentences for people who are involved with drug selling or distribution.
With more than 68,000 people in the United States dying from accidental drug overdoses in 2018 alone, many people are searching for someone to blame and pointing the finger at people who sell drugs. This is also consistent with decades of drug policies based on the assumption that people who sell or distribute drugs are responsible for causing drug use.
Politicians of all stripes have argued that long sentences for drug sellers will reduce drug availability and make remaining drugs more expensive, driving down demand. But this is not how drug markets actually work. Research and history have shown that the vilification and criminalization of people who sell drugs does not reduce problematic drug use, reduce the availability of drugs, or keep people who use drugs safer.
Our current approach to drug sales has failed. We should address drug-involvement, including most sales, outside of the failed apparatus of criminalization. We should also reduce the harms of drug distribution and repair the harm of the criminal legal system’s discriminatory response to the drug trade. =
- Current laws were created on the premise that they would reduce overall supply, and in turn, consumption. In reality, the opposite has occurred. Meanwhile, we have increased the amount of people incarcerated for selling or distribution offenses by 3000% – from 15,000 in 1980 to 450,000 today – and drugs are more readily available, at significantly lower prices.
- There is significant overlap between drug sellers and people who use drugs. A 2012 survey found that 43% of people who reported having sold drugs in the past year also reported that they met the criteria for a substance use disorder.
- Laws against drug selling are so broadly written that it is easy for people caught with drugs for personal use to get charged as dealers, even if they were not involved in selling at all.
- The harsh criminalization of supply-side drug market activity may actually be making drug use more dangerous, increasing overdose deaths and leading to more violence in communities.
- While the criminal legal system purports to focus on high-level sellers, the data show that supply-side criminalization disproportionately impacts the lowest-level people on the supply chain.
- The current system has a discriminatory impact on communities of color, despite the fact that white people are slightly more likely than either Black or Latinx people to report having sold drugs.
Drug prohibition and the criminalization of people who sell or distribute drugs does not reduce the harms of drug use or improve public safety. Our current approach is built on a foundation of stigma, ignorance and fear rather than evidence, and creates new problems while doing nothing to solve those that already exist.
The Drug Policy Alliance believes it is time to rethink the “drug dealer.” We must urgently assess what type of people actually fall into this category and how we as a society can respond to them in ways that will keep people and communities safer and healthier. This work has been motivated by the leadership of formerly incarcerated people and drug users unions.
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