Ian Cooper

Drug dealers deserve as much compassion as users do.

Ian Cooper
Drug dealers deserve as much compassion as users do.

Photo by Vladimir Kramer

President Trump has proposed that federal prosecutors be able to seek the death penalty for people convicted of dealing opioids. I believe this is cruel, gross, and deeply wrong. It also won't help stop addiction.

I used drugs constantly for a period of about two years. When I started, I was a senior in college. After starting law school the next fall, I realized that my studies were interfering with my drug habit. I quickly dropped out in order to focus on getting high, and spent the next year doing little else. 

I bought drugs from four people over that period of time. Three of them were college students like myself—friends of friends. I don’t know where any of them are now, but I could imagine them today working professional jobs in some east coast city. The fourth had a wife and young son, and eventually used the money he made to get out of the business and open an office cleaning service. He was my favorite because he would deliver; when I would ask him to come by, he’d often tell me he first had to stop by his temple to pray.

None of these people were heroes. But they weren't caricatures or villains either. They were just deeply ordinary people.

They came from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions. Two of them I liked, two of them I didn’t. I didn’t truly know any of them. I didn’t know what twists and turns of life brought them to where they were. I never asked. But what I do know is that they were selling drugs because people like me—one of the hundreds of millions of Americans who have used drugs or alcohol—wanted to buy them.

I loved getting high. I loved drugs because I hurt inside, and because drugs made me feel better, and because once I learned that, I couldn’t stop. It was really that simple. My soul only felt quiet when I took the first hit.

As long as there are people like me who need drugs in order to feel okay, there will be people offering them. If we demand the role, they will play the part. It’s not a question of good guys and bad guys, but of people trying to figure out how to live, and people trying to make a living. 

We all just want to get by, and we all pay the price. I was lucky enough to get clean, but I’ve lost good friends to drugs. Some overdosed and died badly; some relapsed and disappeared. It hurts every time.

But the people dealing suffer too. Low-level dealers are mostly selling to fund their own drug habits or because they’re addicted to living on the edge, or because that’s just what goes on where they come from. They usually get caught up in the legal system or violence on the street, and pay an brutal penalty for giving the rest of us what we want.

As for the higher ups—well, does anyone really think the life of a drug kingpin is an enviable one? Watch a few seasons of The Wire: Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell don’t get happy endings. 

The president vilifies drug dealers as inhuman monsters. But the whole ecosystem of drugs—the buyers and the sellers—is made up of people. We’re all just acting out different stages in the same cycle. Nobody is in it because they’re inherently bad, but because one way or another, they’re hurting and don’t know a better way.

We can’t kill our way out of suffering and out of the mistakes we make when we don’t see clearly. That just spreads the hurt. We can only get out through compassion for all involved.

We understand this in our approach to treating addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous has been describing addiction as a disease for almost a century, and the public health community has long since come to share that view. We recognize that the disease comes before the symptoms—that addiction begins in the mind, before we ever pick up a drug—and that drug abuse is really just an attempt to overcome deep-seated physical, emotional and existential pain.

We know that you don’t treat a disease by killing the sick person, but by giving them the support they need to get better.

Much of that support boils down to mercy, forgiveness and kindness. People struggling with addiction are flailing about in the dark. When someone puts out a hand and says, “I see you, I understand what you’re going through, and I want to help you,” well, that can make all the difference. It did for me anyway.

But why should drug dealers be shown any less compassion than those of us clamoring for their services? Why should I get a helping hand, but my supplier a wrathful fist? There is neither decency nor justice in that. My addiction began inside me—my dealers just offered me the relief I so desperately wanted. When one of them disappeared, I always found another.

There’s a thin line between using and selling drugs anyway. All four of my dealers used the same drugs they sold me. If I’d kept using for a few more years, I could easily have ended up in their shoes.

People are dying from addiction in record numbers, and many of us are desperate to help to stem the tide of bodies. But the president’s proposal is not the answer. Decades of harsh drug policy has not abated the demand for drugs—the process has just become more violent and dangerous for all involved. We’ve driven drug deals into the shadows and outside the protections of the law. Threatening to execute drug dealers won’t keep people from looking for a fix, but will make our society colder, crueler and sadder for all who live here.

What should we do instead? Bring addiction and the business of drugs into the open. Accept that people want drugs, and the best we can do is make the experience safer, while offering a way out for anyone willing to take it.

Decriminalizing or legalizing drugs, creating safe spaces to buy and sell them, emphasizing treatment and minimizing the role of the legal system seem like good places to start. Recovery groups, therapy, diversion programs, harm reduction, education, job training—there’s room for all of it. 

Perhaps most of all: we need to see the people who use drugs and the people who supply them as fully human beings.

Drug dealers, not just users, can change. Twelve-step rooms are full of men and women who sold to support their own drug use, and now help others get free from addiction. My favorite dealer got out to build a business on the right side of the law. His son would be 9 or 10 now. 

If these people were dead, the world would be a poorer place. 

Sensible, humane drug policies mean fewer people in prison, less violence on the street, and more people getting the help they need. They work in countries like Portugal, which has decriminalized all drugs and poured resources into providing treatment. This approach is grounded in compassion and decency.

Why can’t we do that here?

Ian is a writer and the founder and editor of Open Heart Beginner's Mind.