Rethinking the “Drug Dealer”: Harsh Penalties for Drug Supply are Counterproductive, Says New Report

New York, NY – Today, the Drug Policy Alliance released a new report making the case for rethinking the way the United States responds to the “drug dealer.” Beyond being merely ineffective, the harsh criminalization of supply-side drug market activity may actually make drug use more dangerous, increasing overdose deaths and leading to more violence in communities. 

The report demonstrates how the United States’ punitive approach to people who sell or distribute drugs—rooted in stigma, ignorance and fear, rather than evidence—has done nothing to reduce the harms of drug use or improve public safety, while instead creating new problems and compounding those that already exist. It builds on a set of videos, which DPA released earlier this year, that features people who have been criminalized by the drug trade. 

“With a record 70,000 deaths from accidental overdose in 2017, people are understandably searching for solutions, but applying harsh penalties to drug sellers scapegoats people who are more often than not drug users as well, while ignoring the larger issue,” said Lindsay LaSalle, Managing Director of Public Health Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Instead, we should be using the same resources and determination to reduce the actual harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, repair the criminal legal system’s discriminatory response to the drug trade, and increase access to evidence-based treatment and support services that benefit health, public safety and economic opportunity in the long term.”

Among the flaws in the current system, the report highlights the following:

  • Current laws were created on the premise that they would reduce overall supply, and in turn, consumption. In reality, the opposite has occurred. We have increased the number of people incarcerated for selling or distribution offenses by 3000%—from 15,000 in 1980 to 450,000 today—and drugs are more readily available, at significantly lower prices.
  • Nearly half of people who have reported selling drugs also meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, supporting the idea that they are selling drugs, to an extent, to support their own dependency.
  • Laws against drug selling are so broadly written that people arrested with drugs for personal use can get charged as “dealers,” even if they were not involved in selling at all. 
  • While the criminal legal system purports to focus on high-level sellers, the data show that supply-side criminalization disproportionately impacts the lowest-level people on the supply chain.
  • The current system has a discriminatory impact on communities of color, despite the fact that data suggest white people are slightly more likely than Black or Latinx people to report having sold drugs.

The report’s analysis further points out how the current approach causes serious harms to health and public safety:

  • Criminalization of people who sell drugs prevents users from getting accurate information about the drugs they are buying and ways to reduce the associated harms. Drug sellers are well-positioned to educate customers about drug effects, distribute sterile equipment and naloxone, and disseminate drug checking information and supplies. 
  • Indiscriminately putting people who sell drugs in prison also means removing trusted sellers from communities, forcing users to buy from people they don’t know and making an already unregulated and unpredictable drug supply even less predictable.
  • Aggressive prosecution of people who sell drugs may undermine 911 Good Samaritan laws, making it less likely that people will call for medical help at the scene of an overdose for fear of being charged with distribution or, even worse, “drug delivery resulting in death” or other drug-induced homicide charge.
  • Law enforcement crackdowns on drug trafficking may incentivize the introduction of more potent, riskier drugs such as fentanyl – a synthetic opioid 30 to 50 times as potent as heroin – into the drug supply.
  • Law enforcement crackdowns may actually increase violence by disrupting the interpersonal relationships and territorial agreements that keep some drug markets operating smoothly.

Accordingly, DPA has provided a set of tailored recommendations based on three broad principles:

  • First, to the maximum extent possible, society should deal with drug involvement outside the destructive apparatus of criminalization – and to the extent that the criminal justice system continues to focus on drug selling and distribution, it must do so with a commitment to proportionality and due process. 
  • Second, we should focus on reducing the harms of drug distribution (for example, reducing drug market-related violence), rather than attempting to eliminate drug market activity. 
  • Third, we must take seriously the criminal justice system’s discriminatory response to the drug trade and work toward reforms that both repair the harm already done while preventing further harm to communities of color and poor communities.

With the report public, DPA aims to expand the current public dialogue around drug reform, to focus on who the people now labeled “drug dealers” in the United States really are and how we, as a society, can respond to them in ways that will keep people and communities safer and healthier.

“Despite the challenges of discussing supply-side drug policy reform in the midst of an overdose crisis, we cannot be silent while policymakers repeat the discriminatory, ineffective, expensive and dangerous mistakes of the past,” Alyssa Stryker, the report’s author and former criminal justice policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in the report.

DPA stressed that the report represents an effort to begin to more meaningfully address the situation of people who are involved in the drug trade. This is an important step for which people within the organization, as well as many allies–especially in the formerly incarcerated persons community–have long advocated.

“Too often, public discourse draws an arbitrary line between people who use drugs and people who sell drugs–in practice, this creates space for the current gentler rhetoric around opioid user and the draconian policy responses to people who sell fentanyl,” said Kassandra Frederique, Managing Director of Policy Advocacy and Campaigns at the Drug Policy Alliance. “We want to be clear: our reform community is everyone impacted by the war on drugs, and that includes people who use drugs and people who sell drugs. We thank the movement for its patience and are excited to continue the work to build a bigger, broader, and more responsible movement that centers not only people who use drugs, but also people who sell them.”

The full report can be found at