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What George Floyd and Breonna Taylor Can Teach Us About the History of the War on Drugs and Needed Police Reforms

The George Floyd memorial outside of Cup Foods in Minneapolis, MN.

Ronald Scott, a central neighborhood resident for more than 10 years, takes a photo of the memorial mural over flowers and banners laid in the memory of George Floyd outside of Cup Foods on May 29, 2020. (Photo: Steel Brooks/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor ignited calls for major police reform. One important question to surface is the role of policing drug use and the militarized way the War on Drugs has been fought 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 in terms of lives. Now is the time to change the way we envision the War on Drugs and how we handle the effects of drug use.

Drug use and blackness

The arrest, murder, and autopsy for Floyd remind us of the long history of deeply rooted stereotypes associating black men with drug use and crime. During Floyd’s arrest, Officer Lane told Officer Chauvin he was “worried about excited delirium.” Chauvin responded, “that’s why we have him on his stomach.” A few minutes later Floyd was dead.

Excited delirium is a controversial diagnosis in which people can become aggressive and exhibit “superhuman strength” after taking stimulant drugs such as methamphetamine. This condition is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association nor the World Health Organization, and critics argue it is used to excuse death caused by police use of force. For example, excited delirium is disproportionately cited as the cause of death in cases where black and Hispanic men die in the custody of the police. Even without the concern of excited delirium, police use more force against people of color than against whites. A recent study showed that in Minneapolis the police use force against black people 7 times more often than against white people, and nationally, black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police. Floyd’s death was not caused by excited delirium, and we should use this opportunity to acknowledge the fear and stereotypes present during Floyd’s arrest and be critical of how they likely contributed to his murder.

The autopsy for Floyd reported the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system. This prompted many media outlets to highlight this information, such as that published by celebrity website TMZ, suggesting somehow Floyd was to blame for his own death. This description 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. For example, in 1914, the New York Times published an article by a physician stating cocaine gave black men supernatural powers and made them impervious to bullets. The associations made between black men and drug use contribute to the extreme racial bias in the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of men of color, even though black and white people use drugs at similar rates and drugs are found in searches more often on whites. This false narrative of the association between drugs and blackness is dangerous and diverts attention from the consequences of the War on Drugs. Floyd’s death was not caused by drug use, and we need to be vigilant against letting the presence of drugs distract us from the fact that Floyd was murdered by a police officer.

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Who pays the price for the War on Drugs?

We should all be wary of police treating citizens as enemies in a war. This was 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 Floyd’s, fueled protests around the world arguing that armed police are not the appropriate way to handle many of the reasons people call for help. Drug use 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 changing definitions of what drugs are legal. For example, all drug use used to be legal, and during the time of prohibition, alcohol was criminalized. Laws related to drug use change as society changes. Unlike mental health workers who are educated in the effects of drugs, police are trained to use a continuum of force and arrest authority to manage situations. This sphere of public safety should be deferred to professionals with the appropriate expertise.

The militarization of police does not make our communities safer. The militarized War on Drugs is utilized disproportionately on black and Latino citizens and contributes to the mass incarceration of lower-income people of color, and the unjust murders of many civilians, including Taylor. In the four decades of the War on Drugs, the use of military tactics to battle drug-related crime has been wholly ineffective at reducing drug use and is shown to be racially biased. In fact, drug use among American citizens has increased. We should not be treating the public health issue of drug abuse with militant police responses.

The call for police reform was around long before the murders of Floyd and Taylor, and recent polls show that nearly 70% of Americans believe the murder of Floyd represents a broader problem within law enforcement. Now is the time for us to take a critical look at law enforcement and reimagine what policing and community safety can look like. We can finally ensure justice, safety, and human dignity are priorities in our society.

The demonization and conflation of drug use and blackness in this country have, for far too long, been the justification for murder. The murders of Floyd and Taylor should not turn into more cases where we blame the victim, to do so would strip Floyd and Taylor of their humanity. 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.” 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 communities of color. Floyd’s 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 A. Siegel

Jessica A. Siegel

Dr. Jessica A. Siegel is an Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of St. Thomas. Her research examines the effects of methamphetamine exposure on the brain and behavior.

Jessica Hodge

Jessica Hodge

Dr. Jessica Hodge is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of St. Thomas. Her research interests include hate crimes, and gender and queer issues in crime and criminal justice.

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