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Why We Need to Talk About Chauvin's Drug-Related Defense

George Floyd’s substance use is both relevant and irrelevant.

Key points

  • Derek Chauvin’s legal defense team is using the victim’s substance use to deflect blame for his death.
  • George Floyd’s substance use is irrelevant to Chauvin's defense, but it is relevant to the psychosocial context that enables such claims.
  • To delegitimize the idea that substance use warrants use of deadly force, we must address overlapping aspects of American culture.
  • Lack of honest drug education, racism, and the War on Drugs have wrongfully legitimized drug-related justifications for deadly force.

There is no shortage of hot-button issues in the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd – racism, policing, drug policy, criminal justice reform, vicarious trauma, moral injury and disengagement, and implicit bias to name a few. As I’ve been watching the trial unfold, I’ve been thinking about how to discuss it with my children and my undergraduate students.

F. Muhammad/Pixabay
George Floyd Mural
Source: F. Muhammad/Pixabay

As an addiction psychologist, what keeps drawing my attention is the need to dispel the idea that substance use justifies the use of force. We know that George Floyd’s postmortem examination showed multiple substances in his system, including THC, methamphetamine, and fentanyl. It’s no surprise that Chauvin’s defense team is using those findings to divert blame from the former officer to the victim.

Although I am personally outraged by that defense tactic, I also see that George Floyd’s substance use is relevant to the global conversation precisely because of its irrelevance to the defense. What types of substances someone has in their system does not justify the use of deadly force, yet Chauvin is using that defense tactic like countless others before him have successfully done. He’s also trying to claim that the drugs themselves were responsible for George Floyd’s death, despite testimony and research refuting that assertion.

The case is merely a symptom of larger systemic problems. So how can we use this moment to educate our kids and young adults about the psychosocial and cultural contexts that have enabled this defense tactic? If we want to delegitimize the claim that substance use, intoxication, or drug possession warrant aggressive force, then we have to address these aspects of American society. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the relevant issues to discuss with our kids, but it’s a place to start.

1. Lack of honest drug education has allowed misinformation about drugs to fuel panic about drug users.

The idea that certain substances lead to superhuman strength or make someone more prone to aggression just isn’t borne out in the evidence. Some intoxicated people do become violent, but the vast majority do not. But the believability of the supposed fear officers experience because of someone being under the influence of drugs allows it to continue being used as a shield against accountability for police wrongdoing.

Part of the reason it’s believable is due to our lack of honest drug education in the U.S. – people believe that an officer felt fear because people believe that drugs make people violent or dangerous. People believe drugs lead to violence because politics and puritanism have driven drug education in this country. We don’t provide honest education about drug effects or overdose symptoms, and that has led to pervasive ignorance about drugs. So many people don’t know the typical effects or overdose symptoms of THC, methamphetamine, or fentanyl and are therefore vulnerable to believing falsities about the impact and relevance of those substances in Mr. Floyd’s system.

We also don’t educate about the differences between therapeutic substance use, recreational non-problematic substance use, substance misuse, and addiction. Abstinence-only education and pursuits of “drug-free” communities have obscured the fact that the majority of drug users don’t develop drug-related problems or addiction. In 2019, 57.2 million Americans age 12 or older reported using drugs in the past year, and only 8.3 million of those met criteria for a drug use disorder. That’s only 14.5% of drug users having a diagnosable addiction, yet we continue to view any substance use as problematic. Thus the lack of honest drug education has facilitated a system that views presumed substance use or drug possession as probable cause and rationale for use of force.

2. We treat substance use and addiction differently than we treat other personal choices or health conditions.

I don’t know enough about George Floyd’s life and substance use to venture a diagnosis, and it’s actually irrelevant whether he suffered from addiction or was simply engaging in recreational drug use. What he put into his body shouldn’t be the reason for restraint or punishment, much less death. But by criminalizing substance use, we have created a situation where someone’s personal choices are used as grounds for law enforcement involvement regardless of whether that choice impacts other people or not.

“I thought he was high,” or “he had drugs on him” have become legitimized excuses for using greater force than is warranted by the actual behaviors, and it's impossible to disentangle racism from claims that use of force was necessary. Police response should be based on actual observable behavior, not hypothetical future behavior based on the presumption of an internal state. Regardless of whether George Floyd reported or denied drug use, he wasn’t displaying erratic or violent behavior that warranted forceful physical restraint.

People who have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorders, and Alzheimer’s also become violent at times, but we don’t see police officers using those internal states as rationale for deadly force. Although police responses to mental health crises are also concerning and often overly aggressive, we don’t see defense tactics justifying violence due to those internal states. If you wouldn’t say, “I had to kneel on his neck because he had Alzheimer’s,” then you shouldn’t say, “I had to kneel on his neck because he was on drugs.”

And if someone is having an adverse reaction to a drug, a mental health crisis, or an allergic reaction to peanuts, law enforcement should provide lifesaving measures. If George Floyd had said he "ate too many drugs," then the only acceptable response from the officers on the scene would have been to assess his wellness and provide medical assistance until medical personnel arrived. And anyone saying, “I can’t breathe” deserves lifesaving measures, regardless of their size, race, or what substances they may have in their system.

3. The racist War on Drugs has further damaged the relationship between citizens and law enforcement and fueled the militarization of police forces.

George Floyd’s mention of his drug use at all during his interactions with police is important because it shows just how drug-focused our policing system has become. Americans have blindly accepted the fact that suspected drug use or possession warrants a response from law enforcement. But it wasn't always that way.

The War on Drugs has fueled the militarization of police forces under the guise of needing better protection from “erratic and dangerous drug criminals.” Police violence in the name of the War on Drugs is completely out of hand. The Defund the Police movement is driven by growing awareness that our police forces are not filling their intended purpose. But a return to community policing won’t be possible until the War on Drugs is abolished in favor of public policies that support communities’ actual needs (poverty, education, healthcare, dismantling racism) instead of a politically manufactured smokescreen need (drug policy enforcement). Although some states are making progress by decriminalizing or legalizing certain substances, law enforcement’s focus on drugs will continue to distract from other issues that bear greater impact on community safety and wellness.

4. The War on Drugs has driven and been driven by racism.

Although recent years have started to shift the American view of addiction from a moral failing to a public health concern, we’re battling decades of propaganda about drugs, who uses them, and the dangers of drugs and drug users. The War on Drugs in the U.S. has a long history of being used to demonize, marginalize, and dehumanize communities of color.

Opium dens were used to denigrate Chinese immigrants. Cannabis and cocaine were used to vilify recently freed slaves. Crack cocaine was blamed for “super-predators,” who were portrayed as menacing young black men. The formal name cannabis was replaced with marijuana to accentuate its “Mexican-ness” and link it to immigrants.

Although each of these instances overtly blamed the substance, they covertly demonized racial minorities by association. Throughout our lives, we’ve received countless messages that “drugs are bad,” and that “drug users are bad/depraved/dangerous.” We’ve also been bombarded with messages and images of black and brown drug users and dealers, despite research consistently showing that white Americans use drugs equally or more than racial minorities. Over time, these combined messages lead to the implicit bias of “black and brown people are bad/depraved/dangerous.”

That’s not to say that white people aren’t negatively affected by U.S. drug policies – they certainly are. But research shows that people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. So we can’t separate George Floyd’s race from Chauvin’s claimed defense – the jury would be less likely to buy the “he was high” defense if Mr. Floyd had been a white woman.

This quote from John Ehrlichman, who was a top aide to President Nixon at the start of the War on Drugs, illustrates a critical aspect of the psychosocial context that set the stage for George Floyd’s death:

“You want to know what this [The War on Drugs] was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

It’s long past time to address the social injustices of the War on Drugs, and talking with our kids about Derek Chauvin’s bogus defense is a step toward that goal.

Let's teach our kids about the irrelevance of George Floyd's substance use to promote relevant changes in our communities.

To learn more about these topics, I highly recommend Dr. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Dr. Carl Hart’s Drug Use for Grown-Ups, and Johan Hari’s Chasing the Scream.

Copyright 2021 Kelly E. Green

John Hain/Pixabay
Source: John Hain/Pixabay


Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Hart, C.L. (2021). Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear. New York: Penguin Press.

Hari, J. (2015). Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. New York: Bloomsbury.

Hart, C.L. (2021, April 8). The claim that drugs killed George Floyd relies on a racist trope.…

DuVernay, A. (2016). 13th. Kandoo Films.

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