What George Floyd and Breonna Taylor can teach us about the history of the War on Drugs and needed police reforms
The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor ignited protests around the nation calling for major police reform. The calls for police reform include many layers, and one important question to rise is the role of policing drug use and the militarized way the War on Drugs has been fought in this country for over 40 years. Using armed police to deal with drug abuse has been one of the most ineffective and costly aspects of the War on Drugs costly in terms of resources and costly in terms of lives. Now is the time to finally change the way we envision our countrys War on Drugs and how we, as a society, handle the effects of drug use and abuse.
Using armed police to deal with drug abuse has been one of the most ineffective and costly aspects of the War on Drugs
The arrest, murder, and original autopsy report for George Floyd reminds us of the long history of deeply rooted stereotypes associating black men with drug use and drug crimes. During Floyds arrest when he was face down on the pavement on a south Minneapolis street corner, Officer Thomas Lane told Officer Derek Chauvin that he was worried about excited delirium. Chauvin responded with thats why we have him on his stomach. A few minutes later George Floyd was dead.
Excited delirium is a controversial diagnosis in which people can become aggressive, incoherent, and exhibit superhuman strength after taking stimulant drugs such as methamphetamine or cocaine. It is important to note that this condition is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association nor the World Health Organization. In fact, critics of this diagnosis often argue it is used to excuse death caused by use of force from police officers. Research shows that in cases of unexpected death associated with the controversial state of excited delirium, the deaths were associated with restraint, with the person in the prone position, and pressure on the neck.
Even more problematic is the fact that excited delirium is disproportionately cited as the cause of death in cases where black and Hispanic men die in the custody of police. There is also ample evidence to suggest that even without the concern of excited delirium, police use more force against people of color than against whites. For example, a recent study after the murder of George Floyd showed that in Minneapolis the police use force against black people 7 times more often than against white people. And recent research shows that at the national level black men are approximately 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by the police. Moreover, there is a substantial amount of research showing black people are more likely than white people to be pulled over and searched while driving, despite the fact that drugs are found more often on white people.
George Floyds death was not caused by excited delirium. Even though the police were not called for a drug-related crime in this case, we must take this opportunity to acknowledge the fear and stereotypes present during Floyds arrest, and be critical of how they may have contributed to his murder at the hands of police.
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner autopsy report for George Floyd reported the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death. This prompted many media outlets to highlight this piece of the autopsy report, such as that published by celebrity website TMZ, suggesting somehow Floyd was to blame for his own death.
The mention of drugs in this case conjures an image of the black male drug user that is rooted in a long history of stereotyping black men as drug users who are threatening and criminal. This false narrative is dangerous and is often used to divert conversations from the real consequences of the abuse of power by police. It also works to erase how the War on Drugs has led to the over-policing of drug crimes in black and brown communities.
According to experts in this field and multiple autopsy reports, including the aforementioned report by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, Floyds death was not caused by drug use, and we need to be vigilant against letting the presence of drugs in Floyds system distract us from the fact that he was murdered by a police officer. Being a drug user should not be viewed as a justification for murder.
Associating black men with drug use and criminality is nothing new. For example, in 1914, the New York Times published an article by a prominent physician stating cocaine gave black men supernatural powers and made them impervious to bullets. The associations made between black men and drug use and crime contributes to the extreme racial bias in how the War on Drugs continues to play out, targeting poor communities of color.
In 1982 when the War on Drugs was announced, drug use rates were on the decline in the United States. Despite this fact, policing for drug crimes on the street increased substantially, especially in communities of color, and incarceration rates for drug crimes skyrocketed, especially among black men. This all occurred even though black and white people used drugs at essentially the same rates.
Research shows that even though black people represent 12.5% of illicit drug use in the United States, they represent 29% of those arrested for drug offenses and 33% of those incarcerated for drug offenses. Even in an era of states legalizing marijuana around the nation, black people are arrested at higher rates for marijuana possession in every single state despite data showing black people do not use more marijuana than white people. Simply put, the War on Drugs has negatively impacted black and brown lives far more than it has impacted white lives, and it is imperative that we, as a country, finally fight to end the War on Drugs.
We should all be wary of police treating United States citizens as enemies in a war like the one we have seen with the War on Drugs. This was recently demonstrated in the tragic death of Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was killed by police during the execution of a no-knock warrant while she was sleeping in her home.
This case, along with George Floyds case, has fueled wide-spread protests around the world. A common demand within these protests has called for defunding the police, arguing that armed police are not the appropriate way to handle many of the reasons people call for help in the first place. Drug use and intoxication is a good example of this. Drug abuse is defined by the American Psychological Association as a mental health condition, and the criminality of drug use lies within the definitions of what drugs are legal to use based on laws that have changed throughout the history of our country and continue to change even today.
For example, all drug use used to be legal in this country, and during the time of prohibition, alcohol was once criminalized and made illegal. Laws related to drug use change as society changes. Police officers, the people charged with enforcing whatever drug laws are on the books at the time, are not experts in drug abuse and mental health. In fact, unlike mental health care providers and social workers who are educated about drugs and their effects and how to handle situations involving drug abuse and intoxication, police are trained to use a continuum of force and arrest authority to manage situations. This may result in the escalation of force, and sometimes deadly force, being used in situations that may have turned out differently if police were not the first to respond, especially considering police training inadequately prepares officers to de-escalate situations. This is an area of public safety that should be deferred to professionals with the expertise and sensitivity to handle these challenging situations, and we are starting to see more focus on this approach due to recent events.
The cost for the War on Drugs has not been shared equally. The increased militarization of police, which coincided with the implementation of the War on Drugs, has not made our communities safer. Instead, the militarized fight of the War on Drugs has been utilized disproportionaley on black and Latino citizens and has contributed to the mass incarceration of our citizens, mainly lower income people of color, and the unjust murders of many civilians, including Breonna Taylor.
The United States now incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world. Research also shows that increased military equipment positively correlates with increased police killings of civilians. Furthermore, in the four decades after the declaration of the War on Drugs and subsequent police militarization, drug use among American citizens has increased.
Clearly, the use of SWAT teams and military weapons to battle drug-related crime has been wholly ineffective at reducing drug use and drug trafficking. Our communities should not be treated as warzones and the people of this country should not be treated as wartime enemies, especially when the militarized tactics do not work to reduce drug use and instead have been shown to be racially biased. Put simply, we should not be treating public health issues, such as drug use and abuse, with militant police responses.
The call for police reform has been around long before the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and recent polls show that nearly 70% of Americans believe the murder of George Floyd represents a broader problem within law enforcement rather than an isolated incident. Now is the time for us to finally take a critical look at law enforcement in our country and reimagine what policing and community safety could look like, including the way we police drug crimes and enforce drug laws. In so doing, we can finally ensure justice, safety, and human dignity are actual priorities in our society.
The demonization and conflation of drug use and blackness in this country has, for far too long, been rationale and justification for murder. Let this moment be an opportunity to change that narrative. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor should not turn into more cases where we blame black people for the circumstance in which they find themselves. To do so would strip George Floyd and Breonna Taylor of their humanity and betrays the complete and utter lack of humanity shown by the officers in these cases. This is a narrative we have seen play out far too often in our country. George Floyd did not die from drug use. He was murdered at the hands of a police officer who had taken an oath to protect and serve.
Breonna Taylor was not a casualty of war. She was a victim of a decades-long campaign that has proven to be ineffective and damages the fabric of our society by punishing low-income black and brown communities unequally. George Floyds six year-old daughter Gianna Floyd said daddy changed the world. May her words ring true for generations to come and may we finally end the War on Drugs.
Jessica Siegel and Jessica Hodge
Jessica A. Siegel is Associate Professor, Psychology & Neuroscience, at the University of St. Thomas. Her research examines the long-term effects of methamphetamine exposure on the brain and behavior using a mouse model. She is currently exploring the effects of adolescent methamphetamine exposure on brain function and behavior, specifically examining the dopamine transporters in the striatum and serum cortisol levels. She is also interested in how other drugs, such as nicotine, interact with the effects of methamphetamine in the adolescent brain. She teaches Brain & Human Behavior and Drugs & Behavior in the Psychology Department, and Principles of Neuroscience and Neuropharmacology in the Neuroscience Program.
Jessica Hodge is an Associate Professor in the Department of Justice & Society Studies and the Faculty Director with the Center for the Common Good at the University of St. Thomas. Prior to joining the faculty at UST, Dr. Hodge was an Assistant Professor at UMKC where she was also affiliated with the Womens and Gender Studies program. She received a doctorate in Criminology from the University of Delaware, and her primary research interests and publications are related to gender and crime issues, juvenile justice policies and practices, and the development and enforcement of hate crime laws.
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