Don't turn Prince's death into a drug trial: Incarceration can’t solve America's addiction crisis

The DEA and federal prosecutors are looking for someone to blame for Prince's untimely death. They should stop

Published May 9, 2016 9:56AM (EDT)

Prince   (AP/Thibault Camus)
Prince (AP/Thibault Camus)

Prince’s death is now the subject of a criminal investigation, and vengeance blooms like a parasitic flower from the corpse of yet another life seemingly lost to addiction. Mournful dance parties completed and Facebook testimonials published, the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota have joined the local probe into the brilliant musician’s premature demise.

Prince may have become addicted to opioids thanks to pain incurred from years of body-breaking dance, and then undergoing hip surgery, according to reports. Percocet is said to have been found in his body. In predictable fashion, the criminal justice system is now exploring whether someone must be blamed, arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated. As if that won’t just make matters worse.

The opioid crisis is serious. In 2014, 28,647 people died from overdoses involving opioids at a rate three times higher than in 2000. Opioids, including OxyContin, heroin and, increasingly, frighteningly-deadly fentanyl, are powerful drugs geared to blot out pain both physical and psychic. But amid widespread calls to end the drug war, law enforcement is once again cribbing from its old and failed war-on-crime playbook to deal with a public health problem.

Police departments are now treating overdoses like crime scenes, searching for a dealer’s identity to work themselves back up the drug supply chain. Newfound sympathy for drug addicts, who this time around tend to be white, does not extend to dealers. With addiction, it is easier to blame someone else. And nowhere are calls for retribution louder than when a beloved celebrity dies.

In 2014, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died from an overdose involving heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and benzodiazepines. The New York Police Department tried to nail musician Robert Aaron as the culprit. Aaron, like Hoffman, was an addict, and said that he sold heroin to friends on the side. Police failed to prove that Aaron’s heroin played any role in Hoffman’s death, and the musician ultimately pleaded to possession charges.

"At some level it's like the Salem witch trials," Aaron told the New York Times . "You can't have a witch hunt without a witch. I'm just unlucky enough to be the guy. You gotta have a human sacrifice, and that's what I am."

In 2011, Michael Jackson’s personal doctor was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Jackson was desperately preparing for a tour he needed to make up hundreds of millions in debt and reportedly begged the doctor to administer the surgical anesthetic propofol to help him sleep. Outside the courthouse, fans danced celebratory renditions of "Beat It" and chanted “justice.”

Blockbuster drug-death prosecutions are just the shiny tip of a troubling iceberg. Around the country, prosecutors are seeking harsh charges, including murder charges, against dealers whose product results in a fatal overdose. In recent weeks alone, a Cleveland man was sentenced to seven years for selling heroin that resulted in a fatal overdose, a Virginia woman got nine years for two deals to police officers, and a 32-year-old Louisiana man convicted of dealing received 50 years. The judge’s only regret was that he couldn't put him away forever.

“If a life sentence for dealing heroin were still an option,” said District Judge Mike Erwin, “I would feel comfortable sentencing every convicted heroin dealer to life in prison without the eligibility of parole and truly believe it would be a start in the process of saving lives and hopefully run these criminals out of Baton Rouge.”

In Congress, the opioid crisis is warping efforts to stem mass incarceration. A new sentence enhancement for fentanyl dealing was added to a Senate criminal justice reform bill, already watered down, that is purportedly about reducing the prison population.

What all this has to do with saving people’s lives is entirely unclear.

Amongst the first to find Prince’s body was the son of California addiction specialist Dr. Howard Kornfeld, who had flown out to Minnesota on behalf of his father with a dose of the buprenorphine, a drug effective in treating opioid addiction. Prince reportedly never got the chance to take it. Neither do many others. The brand name drug Suboxone, a form of buprenorphine, “is surprisingly hard to access in Minnesota, where only about 120 doctors have completed the federal certification necessary to prescribe it,” the Star Tribune reports.

That’s also true in states nationwide. Doctors don’t want a waiting room full of addicts, and even those who don’t mind are severely restricted by government from prescribing buprenorphine. In tiny Vermont, Stateline reported in February, nearly 500 addicts are on a waiting list for treatment medication. President Obama has proposed increasing access. In the meantime, he could direct federal prosecutors to start doing no more harm.

In the coming weeks, some previously-anonymous doctor or drug dealer to Prince might begin making headlines. Remember that the same government prosecuting drug dealers in the name of dead addicts still refuses to give addicts treatment when they demand it. America continues to learn the wrong lessons from these morality plays.

By Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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Dea Drugs Opioid Crisis Prince The War On Drugs