Arresting Michael K Williams’ alleged drug dealers won’t solve the US addiction crisis | Akin Olla
I cried the night Michael K Williams joined the over 100,000 Americans who died of an overdose in 2021. When I heard that Williams, the actor best known for his role as Omar, the queer, gun-toting rogue in The Wire, had suffered an accidental overdose in his apartment, I felt a deep sense of dread. The knowledge that another Black man not too dissimilar from myself had passed before his time mingled in my mind with my bitter memory of the moment when I learned that my best friend, Joseph Rodriguez, had overdosed at the age of 19.
I am grateful, I suppose, that by the time Joe had died, in 2009, the public narrative around drug users had begun to evolve. Young suburban white kids had started dying, and the country quickly shifted to protect its most prized possessions. Teens were sent to rehab, and drug dealers, like those who allegedly sold Williams his final dose, were rounded up and blamed for what is clearly a broader societal issue.
Last week four men in Brooklyn were charged with having sold fentanyl-laced heroin to Williams and others. This hollow act is part of the problem. The US has long chosen mass incarceration as the solution to substance abuse. Arresting people didn’t prevent Williams’ overdose, and arresting more now won’t prevent future ones. And given Williams’ stance on the war on drugs, it is doubtful he would have endorsed this action.
There are many solutions that could have helped keep Williams alive. While it is unlikely that the US will rid itself of many of the underlying drivers of drug addiction – such as violence, systemic racism and the inequalities of capitalism – anytime soon, the country, and the federal government in particular, has long ignored policy reforms that could help address the worst of our current addiction epidemic. The most important reform, decriminalization, has gained steam in some places, like Oregon, but remains far away as a federal reform.
Williams was a one-of-a-kind man and artist, but not unique in his struggles with drugs: According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 14.5% of Americans – roughly 40.3 million people – had a substance use disorder in 2020. A couple hundred of those people who die of an overdose every day. This is a long-term trend that continues to explode over time; while over 100,000 Americans died of an overdose last year, the number was roughly 17,000 in 2000. As someone who has been involved with drug policy reform since 2010, roughly a year after my friend died, it is difficult to maintain hope as the bodies pile up, especially as solution after solution is ignored by the federal government.
There are an embarrassingly large number of policies that could be backed by the federal government and implemented nationwide to save lives and nudge addicted people towards healing. Rather than concentrating power in the police through criminalization, most of these policies involve treating drug users like human beings worthy of love and care. One of the simplest ways to save lives is to make drug testing kits easily available for drug users. Williams was reportedly poisoned by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid mixed into cocaine and heroin as a means for illicit manufacturers to increase profits. Drug testing kits, like fentanyl test trips, let consumers ensure that they know what they’re putting into their bodies. While these strips are available for free in some places, such as New York City, they are still illegal in many states because they’re considered drug paraphernalia.
Another potentially life-saving intervention? Supervised consumption sites. These are locations where people can consume drugs safely, with the support of medical staff that can ensure the purity of what is being used while being on call to intervene in the event of accidental overdoses. These locations can also connect people with treatment services and safer alternative drugs. If this all feels unfamiliar, think of bars as a crude version of these sites: bartenders administer doses to clients and can cut them off if they are too intoxicated. If anyone drinks too much, bartenders can call an ambulance and have them hospitalized. Creating robust supervised consumption sites could save lives, and destigmatizing those sites could save even more.
All of these interventions would be made more effective and possible if the federal government took the important leap to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all drugs. Total decriminalization may seem extreme, but there is evidence that it could save lives, reduce drug use, and prevent more unnecessary incarceration and harassment of those who use drugs, particularly Black Americans. Living in New York City, Williams did have access to some harm reduction resources but, like many drug users, may have felt too much stigma to seek help.
Portugal decriminalized all drugs, in small amounts, in 2001. The country has also radically expanded its capacity to treat substance use disorders. According to the US-based Drug Policy Alliance, overdose deaths in Portugal decreased by more than 80% after decriminalization. By contrast, in 2017, “there were more than 72,000 overdose deaths in the US. If the US overdose death rate were on par with Portugal’s, there would have been fewer than 800 overdose deaths that year.” By 2008, three quarters of those suffering from substance use disorder in Portugal were in treatment.
The deaths of Michael K Williams and Joseph Rodriguez were perfectly preventable if we’d wanted them to live. Addiction is inevitable in our present society. Capitalism is a system that necessarily involves the commodification of human beings and the reduction of the individual into a tiny cog that exists to work and create profit. This dehumanization, exacerbated by racism, is probably why there are strong relationships between poverty and addiction, and why Black men are now the people most likely to overdose and die.
The reality is that there will be many more deaths like Williams’. I expect to lose more friends; it would be naive to think that I won’t. In recent years both Democrats and Republicans have slowly shifted closer to the kind of drug reforms that could save lives. But for some of the people I love it is too little, too late and, without a comprehensive federal plan that includes decriminalization, we may as well brace ourselves for more tearful phone calls and funerals.