Locking Up Drug “Dealers” to Save Users Doesn’t Make Anyone Safer

President Trump declared a national emergency to fund a wall on the southern U.S. border. In his declaration speech, he doubled down on the ridiculous idea that a wall would significantly impact the drug trade. He also took the opportunity to reiterate the claim that executing drug dealers would end the overdose crisis, reinforcing another falsehood about how drug markets work.

While the death penalty proposal is more dramatic than most, it is consistent with decades of policies based on the assumption that harshly punishing people who sell drugs will reduce drug use. Politicians of all stripes have argued that long sentences for drug dealers will reduce drug availability and make remaining drugs more expensive, driving down demand. But this is not how drug markets work, and is directly contradicted by the available evidence.

Research shows that when a person who sells drugs is imprisoned, they are inevitably replaced by a new recruit or by additional work from remaining sellers, as long as demand remains unaffected. As thoroughly documented in a 2015 report, the major sentencing increases enacted in the 1980s and ’90s failed to reduce drug use or recidivism. A Maryland police officer described arresting drug sellers as “playing whack-a-mole” and “banging your head against a wall,” because an arrested seller can be so efficiently replaced.

Historical trends also demonstrate that imprisoning people who sell drugs does not reduce the drug supply, drive up prices or prevent drug use. Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at the Marron Institute at New York University, explained,

We did the experiment. In 1980, we had about 15,000 people behind bars for drug dealing. And now we have about 450,000 people behind bars for drug dealing. And the prices of all major drugs are down dramatically. So if the question is, do longer sentences lead to higher drug prices and therefore less drug consumption, the answer is no.

Like others before him, Trump also blames dealers for the harms of drug use. He holds people who sell drugs responsible for dangerously high potency products, such as those containing fentanyl. But sellers who are low down in the supply chain often have no way of knowing the content or potency of the drugs that they are selling. In an unregulated market with limited access to drug-checking equipment to test for adulterants, there is no way for them to tell what has been added to their product before they get it.

Blaming drug dealers for harming drug users is also misguided because there is significant overlap between these two groups. A 2012 survey found that 43 percent of people who reported having sold drugs in the past year also reported that they met the criteria for a substance use disorder. Regular drug use is expensive, and many people with serious addiction issues have trouble maintaining employment, so selling to support one’s personal use is common. In addition, laws against drug dealing are so broadly written that it is easy for people caught with drugs for personal use to get charged as dealers, even if they weren’t involved in selling at all.

Politicians and prosecutors who say they want a public health approach to drug use, but harsh criminal penalties for anyone who sells are in many cases calling for the imprisonment and non-imprisonment of the very same people. Severe criminalization for everyone – no matter how low-level – who sells or distributes drugs is grossly disproportionate and counterproductive.

Many people convicted of selling drugs were simply drug users, low-level sellers, lookouts, couriers or other people just trying to get by, without getting hurt or hurting other people. My organization, the Drug Policy Alliance, has released a new nine-part video series highlighting the stories of people who were involved in drug selling, or criminalized as dealers when caught with drugs for personal use.

It includes stories of people like Aron Tuff, a veteran from Georgia who used illegal drugs to manage the pain of a back injury he sustained in the Army. The police found 0.3 grams of cocaine on the ground near Tuff at a party, and charged him with possession with intent to distribute. Because of prior convictions related to his drug use, Tuff received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

It also tells the story of Caswick Naverro, who began using drugs at a young age to deal with the post-traumatic stress symptoms he experienced as a result of the violence in his New Orleans neighborhood. He started selling drugs when he was 13 to help support his younger siblings and single mother, who had lupus. Sending people like these to prison for long sentences is cruel beyond measure, and does nothing to stop overdoses.

Exploring new approaches to people who sell drugs is especially urgent at a time when more than 70,000 people in the United States died from overdose in 2017. Sellers who work directly with users may be able to distribute naloxone to people that mainstream public health programs will never reach. Perhaps they could be trained to educate their customers about safer drug use and harm reduction. If drug checking equipment were made widely available, people who sell drugs might be enlisted to help provide these services, allowing users to get a more accurate sense of drug potency and to make informed decisions about dosing.

These possibilities are still untested on a larger scale. But the current policy approach is based on myths, not reality. Current drug laws are not helping the fight against overdoses, nor are they reducing the other harms of drug use – in fact, they are making those problems worse.

If we are serious about saving lives, we need to try something new – not just reforming sentencing laws that send low-level sellers to prison for decades, but also engaging people who sell drugs in harm-reduction work and addressing the economic conditions that drive people into illicit economies in the first place. That’s the conversation we should be having – not one about false “solutions” like the death penalty and a border wall.