Substance Use Is Dangerous

At the hands of law enforcement, and if you’re a person of color.

Posted Jun 26, 2020

We have witnessed recently some extremely high-profile deaths associated with intoxicants. However, the intoxicants per se were not the direct cause of the deaths.

Death at the hands of the police

Three recent cases of minorities who have died at the hands of law enforcement have received a great deal of attention.

1.  In Tucson, AZ, Carlos Ingram-Lopez, 27, died while being arrested in April.

Mr. Ingram-Lopez went into cardiac arrest after officers restrained him in a prone position for about 12 minutes. EMS personnel said he was experiencing acute cocaine intoxication.

2. Rayshard Brooks, 27, was shot June 12th by an Atlanta police officer.

Brooks was shot twice trying to escape after a struggle erupted when police tried to handcuff him for being intoxicated in his car (he wasn’t driving when the police encountered him).

3. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency medical technician, was fatally shot by three plainclothes Louisville police department officers in March. 

The officers were executing a no-knock search warrant on Taylor in her apartment where she was asleep with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who exchanged gunfire with the officers, thinking they were intruders. Walker survived, but Taylor was shot dead.  

What do these cases have in common?

These cases might seem unrelated: Brooks had consumed a legal intoxicant, alcohol, but had been driving. Ingram-Lopez was using an illegal substance, cocaine, to which he was having an acute reaction. And poor Taylor had no drugs at all — the warrant was executed on the wrong address.

But there are also certain similarities among them. In all three cases, the deaths were caused by law enforcement officers. In all cases, the victim was a person of color.

And in all cases, the cause of the interaction was an intoxicant — whether legal, illicit, or imaginary.

Our culture's extreme reactivity towards intoxicants, combined with the fractured relations between minorities and the police in the U.S., resulted in these deaths.

Can we imagine an alternative scenario?

The reaction to these three incidents has been spearheaded by #BlackLivesMatter. That is, all are regarded as having been caused by the implicit racism and brutality of American law enforcement.

But a different way of conceiving the problem is as one that is due to our attitudes and policies towards drugs and alcohol. 

What would a better approach likely focus on?

How about prioritizing safety?

All of these cases might have made the safety of the user (and others) the primary concern. This would include getting Mr. Brooks off the road, and then home safely (legal sanctions might wait until daylight when Mr. Brooks was sober).

Mr. Ingram-Lopez’s case might have been treated as an acute drug reaction and dealt with clinically — including calming him both through personal interaction and medical intervention.

And Ms. Taylor might be alive. . . well, if police were not so hysterically pursuing drug users. That is, perhaps let them use drugs in their own homes? If she (or someone) was being arrested for selling drugs, then the officers might have waited until someone tried to purchase drugs from Taylor and Walker, rather than conducting an assault on them while they were asleep.

Underlying a different way of conceiving how to approach these cases requires that we deal with drug and alcohol use in a pragmatic, harm-reduction fashion. That is, we might ask the question: “How do we best approach people who may be using substances dangerously so as to reduce overall harm to them and others?”

The answer to this question is unlikely to involve arresting, restraining, or shooting them.

And the mindset required to be pragmatic in this way requires us — and law enforcement — to eliminate the hysteria so often evoked when intoxicant use is involved.

After all, it wasn’t the substances themselves that caused the problem in each of these cases. It was law enforcement’s, our, reaction to drugs and alcohol.