Critics Say Chauvin Defense 'Weaponized' Stigma For Black Americans With Addiction | WAMC

Critics Say Chauvin Defense 'Weaponized' Stigma For Black Americans With Addiction

Apr 16, 2021
Originally published on April 18, 2021 7:58 am

When George Floyd's girlfriend Courteney Ross took the stand for the prosecution, she described the couple's struggle with drugs as part of the nation's deadly opioid epidemic.

"It's a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids," Ross testified. "We both suffered from chronic pain. We both had prescriptions."

During the opioid crisis, millions of Americans became addicted to prescription painkillers, then turned to street opioids including fentanyl. "We tried really hard to break that addiction many times," Ross said.

Her account broadly matches the way scientists, addiction care specialists and many law enforcement experts now think about addiction: as a chronic illness.

It's dangerous and challenging for the person with substance use disorder, but is most often treatable with proper health care.

Yet during Derek Chauvin's trial, his defense has worked to frame the addiction of George Floyd, a Black man, as something criminal, dangerous and frightening.

"This is what's called a speedball, a mixture of an opiate and a stimulant," said Chauvin's attorney Eric Nelson, referring to a pill found at the scene where George Floyd was killed.

Nelson raised the issue of Floyd's drug use again and again, suggesting narcotics in his system made him unpredictable. He pointed to police training that suggests officers "need to be careful when someone comes out of unconsciousness" because "they can be more volatile."

This portrayal of Floyd infuriates Dr. Stephen Taylor, a national expert on drug treatment with the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Taylor believes the evidence, including video taken at the scene, shows Floyd needed health care and compassion, but was handled instead with excessive force.

"Many of us Black folks, including me personally, we look at that situation and we see that that could easily have been me. That could have been my brother. That could easily have been my son," he said.

Taylor has written extensively about racial bias in the treatment of people with addiction.

He notes most people who use drugs face stigma. But studies show people of color with addiction are often viewed far more negatively than whites — as dangerous criminals rather than sympathetic patients.

Taylor says this framing is racist, and he believes it has been used deliberately by Chauvin's defense team to sway the jury.

"The idea that the presence of drugs in George Floyd's system should somehow be weaponized against him to justify someone killing him is incredibly painful," he said.

Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, agrees. She said the argument that Floyd's drug use legitimized Chauvin's violence is dismaying but not surprising.

"Drugs have historically been used as pretext as well as justification for law enforcement violence against Black people," she told NPR.

Frederique believes the effort during the trial to shift the focus to Floyd and his drug use is part of a wider effort meant to distract from policies that put Black people with addiction in danger.

"This is about policing in this country. It is about the way we have chosen to respond to a health issue like addiction through a criminal justice lens."

Whatever the outcome, it is likely the verdict in this trial and its meaning will be fiercely debated. But Dr. Stephen Taylor said if Chauvin is acquitted, the signal heard by people of color who struggle with drug addiction will be clear.

"It will be a horrible message. It will be a message that ... says you can be beaten, and you can be tortured, and you can be killed, and that illness then becomes the justifying excuse to allow someone to get away with doing that to you."

Taylor said stigma and fear of police are already keeping many Black Americans from seeking help they need at a time when overdose deaths are surging especially among people of color.

"The situation is not hopeless," he said. "I'm hopeful people increasingly are coming to understand the nature of addiction as a chronic, relapsing disease. They're coming to understand the way we need to address this problem in BIPOC communities is to invest in a public health approach."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The murder trial of Derek Chauvin is the latest inflection point in this country's conversation about race. At the forefront of the discussion, police violence toward Black Americans. But attitudes about drugs and addiction are also at play. During the weeks of testimony, Chauvin's defense has highlighted George Floyd's drug use. Some drug policy experts say that's a weaponization of Floyd's addiction and the stigma faced by people of color who struggle with substance abuse. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When George Floyd's girlfriend, Courteney Ross, took the stand for the prosecution, she described the couple's struggle with drug use this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COURTENEY ROSS: It's a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids. We both suffered from chronic pain. We both had prescriptions.

MANN: During the opioid epidemic, millions of Americans became addicted to prescription painkillers, then turned to street opioids, including fentanyl.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSS: We tried really hard to break that addiction many times.

MANN: This account broadly matches the way scientists and addiction care specialists and even many in law enforcement now think about addiction as a chronic illness treatable with proper health care. But during Derek Chauvin's trial, his defense worked to frame the addiction of George Floyd, a Black man, very differently as something criminal, dangerous and frightening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC NELSON: This is what's called a speedball, a mixture of an opiate and a stimulant.

MANN: That's Chauvin's attorney Eric Nelson describing a pill found at the scene where George Floyd was killed. While Floyd wasn't detained for drug use, Nelson raised the issue again and again, suggesting narcotics in Floyd's system that day made him unpredictable, justifying the aggressive use of force even after Floyd appeared unresponsive. Here's Nelson cross-examining one of Derek Chauvin's supervisors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON: The training indicates that you need to be careful because when someone comes back out of unconsciousness, they can become more volatile than they were before?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That can happen, yes.

MANN: This portrayal of George Floyd infuriates Dr. Stephen Taylor, a national expert on drug treatment with the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Taylor believes the evidence is clear. Floyd was a man who needed medical treatment and compassion.

STEPHEN TAYLOR: Many of us Black folks, including me personally - we looked at that situation, and we see that that could easily have been me. That could have easily been my brother. That could have easily been my son.

MANN: Taylor has written extensively about racial bias in the treatment of people with addiction. He notes most people who use drugs face stigma. But studies show people of color with addiction are often viewed far more negatively than whites as dangerous criminals rather than sympathetic patients. Taylor says this framing is racist. And he believes it's been used deliberately by Chauvin's defense team to sway the jury.

TAYLOR: The idea that the presence of drugs in George Floyd's system should somehow be weaponized against him to justify someone killing him is incredibly painful.

MANN: Kassandra Frederique, with a group called the Drug Policy Alliance, agrees. She says the idea that George Floyd's drug use legitimized the force used against him by Chauvin is dismaying but not surprising.

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: Drugs have historically been used as pretext, as well as justification for law enforcement violence against Black people.

MANN: Frederique believes the effort to shift the focus to George Floyd and his drug use is part of a wider effort to distract attention from policies and attitudes that put Black people with addiction in danger.

FREDERIQUE: This is about policing in this country. And it is about the way that we have chosen to respond to a health issue like drug addiction through a criminal justice lens.

MANN: Whatever the outcome, the verdict in this trial and its meaning will be fiercely debated. But Dr. Stephen Taylor says if Chauvin is acquitted, the signal heard by people of color who experience drug addiction will be clear.

TAYLOR: It would be a horrible message. It would be a message that says if you're Black, you can be beaten. You can be tortured. You can be killed. And that illness then becomes the justifying excuse to allow someone to get away with doing that to you.

MANN: Taylor says stigma and fear of police are already keeping Black Americans from seeking the help they need to survive at a time when drug overdose deaths are surging, especially among people of color. Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.