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Where’s the Justice in Arresting Michael K. Williams’ Drug Sellers?

The death of Michael K. Williams put another familiar and widely cherished face among the many that perished from drug overdoses in the US. Most known for his role in The Wire but also for his community activism and public comments on race, class and own drug struggles, Williams died of an accidental poly-drug overdose. Last week, four men were charged in his death with “narcotics conspiracy to distribute fentanyl-laced heroin”.

The US Attorney Damian Williams said: “This is a public health crisis. And it has to stop. Deadly opioids like fentanyl … feed addiction and lead to tragedy.” NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell applauded the police’s efforts and stated they had brought a “measure of justice” to Williams’ family.

But the tragedy of Williams’ fate, alongside the other 100,000 lives lost to a combination of tainted drug supplies and lack of access to life-saving medicine in the last year in the US alone, is exacerbated by a failure to deliver meaningful justice by addressing the root causes of the opioid crisis.

The criminal justice system’s highly individualised response to drug-related deaths – where responsibility is placed on an individual or a group rather than a system of marginalisation and criminalisation – does not allow for the transformational justice needed to truly fix the error that led to Williams’ death in the first place: the War on Drugs. Instead, it is avenging Williams’ suffering with yet more pain: arresting (potentially for life) all those found to be involved in this specific instance of drug supply.

I can’t help but feel like real justice has not been, and could never be, found in this response. How can more criminalisation bring any closure to someone that was forced to seek out their drug of choice from a source that’s illegal (and therefore of unknown quality or origin) in the first place?

Vilifying the drug seller is an intrinsic feature of the War on Drugs. Even when there is evidence that they often look out for the health of their customers, it hides the fact that many are pushed into the drug trade as a means of survival. Prohibition ensures that drug sellers are seen as responsible for all the violence that happens in the trade, when much of its violence is a by-product of its illegality.

Giulia Zampini, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Greenwich, added:

“The very essence of criminal law is about individualising blame, so authorities who want to escape responsibility resort to it. We see this in cases such as Michael K. Williams’, where the figure of the conniving drug dealer becomes the scapegoat. Time and again, this does nothing to address the real issues at the root of these structural problems: prohibition, inequality, trauma.”

Sheila Vakharia, Deputy Director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, highlighted the issue with individualising the blame for Williams’ death, raising that these men may not have necessarily known that the heroin they sold contained fentanyl. The infamous opioid has become widely available and frequently mixed into supply, either by a small-scale dealer or by anyone else in the supply chain. Bringing justice to an overdose death in the current criminal justice system implies that all those involved in the drug supply should be charged for this crime. This would be the best-case scenario for law enforcement, who would claim they had successfully served justice to overdose victims.

In Williams’ case, the US Attorney rightly recognised the nation’s rampant drug overdoses as a public health crisis: he knows you cannot arrest your way out of it. When a drug policy system wages war on the people that use, produce or sell drugs, that system is inherently, intrinsically, and structurally unjust. This system is not able to address the injustice of the ongoing public health crisis because it has created it, perpetuating its harm by criminalising drugs. This same system deviously prevents the funding and distribution of the harm-reduction tools needed to avoid these tragic fatalities.

Political theorist Iris Marion Young, who has written extensively on identifying structural injustices, has defined them as social processes that place groups of people “under systematic threat of domination or deprivation of the means to develop and exercise their capacities”. Although originally it described how poverty limits people’s available opportunities to improve their situations, the same critique can be applied to prohibition. People who use drugs many times do not have the means to trust the safety of their supply, forced to take huge risks every time they use them.

As Michael K. Williams himself said about the War on Drugs: “It’s destroyed lives, torn families apart, filled our jails and prisons and hijacked countless futures of black and brown youth – but that’s what it was supposed to do.” He understood that in the US (but globally under prohibition), no justice can be exacted in a system that has been built to punish certain groups in society, either because of the colour of their skin or the illegality of their substance of choice.

Some proponents of carceral punishment are exploring how drug dealers could be charged with homicide when their clients fatally overdose from fentanyl. In fact, since 2011, 45 states in the US have proposed or implemented increased fentanyl-related penalties to supposedly act as a deterrent to its use.

Most American states have moved towards a greater punishment for fentanyl distribution to attempt to curb its use. Source: DPA


Obviously, this seems like the next logical step in an eye-for-an-eye model of justice, where a clear culprit must be found wholly responsible for someone’s death. Imani Mason Jordan, Communications Strategist at Release, disagrees:

“They [the state] are completely ignoring any evidence and relying on neoliberal responses that focus on individuals that break a rule rather than structural issues they themselves are causing. That is the real tragedy. If I die of an overdose, I want to be the very last person to die of an overdose! And this is totally within the scope of possibility.”

To truly bring justice to every senseless drug death, a radical transformation about the way we deal with drugs in society is needed. Work in this department has already been started with harm reduction, through policies that reduce the number of overdosesprovide life-saving medicine like naloxone, and distribute fentanyl testing kits to identify dangerous adulterants.

The current criminal justice system does not allow for such opportunities to develop because it is built on blaming people, not identifying and transforming its structural faults.

Would this bring any sense of justice to those that have died? Would they have wanted their circumstances to be used to further criminalise others within their community? Or would it be better to radically overhaul the system that created and continue to fuel the drug overdose crisis? I think Michael would have agreed:

“As the war on people turns 45, we must collectively acknowledge that it is one of the greatest American injustices ever committed, and turn outrage and frustration into action and progress.”


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