Like millions of Americans, George Floyd lived with the torment of drug addiction.
He and his girlfriend, Courteney Ross, became addicted to opioids four years ago after both were prescribed the drugs for chronic pain. When the prescriptions ran out, they turned to illegal drug use, she said. They tried to go clean but failed. They tried again but could not stop for long.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States, Floyd, the father of two daughters, started using again during a dark time: he lost his job as a nightclub security guard because of quarantine shutdowns, he was hospitalized for several days after an overdose, and he found out he had the coronavirus. On the day he died, his neck trapped under the knee of former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin for more than nine minutes, he had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, toxicology reports later showed.
“We got addicted and tried really hard to break that addiction many times,” Ross said tearfully Thursday during testimony in the Chauvin trial over Floyd’s death.
Floyd’s death helped launch a global civil rights movement over racial injustice and police violence. The trial over his death could similarly shape how Americans view drug addiction at a time when Black people continue to overwhelmingly be denied medical treatment compared with white Americans even as they suffer from disproportionately high rates of fatal opioid overdoses.
Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, has sought to persuade jurors that drugs – not Chauvin’s knee pressing on Floyd’s neck as he cried “I can’t breathe” while handcuffed on the ground – contributed to Floyd’s death.
Prosecutors, family members and medical experts have said Floyd’s history of addiction does not explain how he died. Chauvin, who is white, is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man.
“George was walking, talking, laughing, and breathing just fine before Derek Chauvin held his knee to George’s neck,” Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, lawyers for Floyd’s family, said in a statement Thursday morning. “Tens of thousands of Americans struggle with self-medication and opioid abuse and are treated with dignity, respect and support, not brutality.”
Drug use has been used to explain the deaths of other Black people who have died at the hands of police, including Michael Brown in Missouri, said Scott Nolen, director of the addiction and health equity program at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which works to reduce drug addiction. Structural racism leads people of color who use drugs to be wrongly seen as “throwaways,” he said.
Andre Johnson, CEO of the Detroit Recovery Program, a drug addiction support program, said people relapse because of inadequate resources.
The Chauvin defense “really sheds light on how people of color, Black people, are treated when they have an addiction. What they are failing to do is treat George Floyd as a whole person,” Johnson said. “The fact that he used drugs is not why he died. He died because he was a big Black man and a white man did not value his life.”
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The notion of treating drug addiction as a medical condition and not a moral failing became more widespread in the 2000s based on emerging research and as prescription opioid pain relievers became popular and thousands of white people began to die from overdoses.
Unlike previous drug crises that primarily hurt low-income Americans and people of color, victims of opioid drug addiction were often portrayed by lawmakers and the media as ordinary white Americans who had fallen prey to a highly addictive substance.
“One of the first things you notice is that when drug addiction, in particularly opioid addiction, became seen as a white drug problem, suddenly people were deeply interested in the origin of your drug addiction – they were interested in origin stories that made you not responsible,” said Ekow N. Yankah, a criminal law professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York City. “Those origin stories were never available to Black people, in particular Black urban dwellers. No one cared why you got hooked on drugs.”
In subsequent years, many Republican and Democratic lawmakers began to embrace legal marijuana, reducing sentences for low-level drug offenders and drug addiction treatment instead of criminal charges. The political movement has represented a significant departure from federal drug policy of the past that often resulted in Black men serving long sentences for nonviolent crack cocaine crimes while white offenders who used cocaine got comparatively light jail time.
“There is no question if crack had been a white kid’s disease it would have ended up in treatment, but it ended up in everyone going to jail,” said Robert Stutman, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York office during the 1980s war against crack cocaine.
Of the more than 840,000 people who have died since 1999 from a drug overdose, more than 70% in 2019 involved an opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the opioid crisis has largely claimed white lives, opioid-involved overdose death rates in the Black community have skyrocketed in recent years, federal data show.
The addiction journey of Ross, who is white, and Floyd could help Americans see Black drug users in a sympathetic light, medical and legal experts said.
“They are ordinary drug users – they are ordinary people struggling with drug use. Black people end up hooked on drugs for the exact same reasons white people do,” said Yankah, the law professor.
Many Americans now better understand that people grappling with drug addiction cannot easily stop abusing substances.
“People use drugs for a variety of reasons, including managing physical and emotional pain. It’s because of those many reasons that oftentimes it’s hard to stop using,” said Sheila P. Vakharia, deputy director of the research and academic engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit based in New York.
And yet Black people are often denied the same lifesaving medical treatment as white Americans to address opioid addiction, research shows. One study found Black patients were 77% less likely to receive buprenorphine, a drug that limits the desire for opioids.
Instead, Black Americans are often prescribed methadone, which requires most patients to show up at a medical office every day to get the drug, a significant barrier for low-income Americans, including many people of color, who do not work flexible hours or have access to transportation.
“The way we give it to people is really terrible. Imagine if we made someone do that for their blood pressure medicine or their diabetes medicine,” Vakharia said.
For Americans without health insurance, both forms of treatment are often out of reach. And Hispanic, Asian and Black Americans are more likely to be uninsured than white Americans.
“The impact of incarceration, arrests and marginalization, which stem from racially motivated and punitive drug laws, adds to the physical suffering and makes it more difficult to get treatment and be treated humanely. It is these attitudes that give license to the Floyd defense team to try to paint him as worthless and ‘sick’ because he suffered from addiction,” said Deborah Agus, executive director of the Behavioral Health Leadership Institute in Baltimore, which focuses on ensuring vulnerable populations have access to better addiction treatment.
Data shows Americans are using heroin and fentanyl at the same rate regardless of race or ethnicity, but the increase in opioid-related death rates among people of color is likely the result of disproportionate access to treatment for these groups compared with white Americans, said Dr. Pooja Lagisetty, a health services researcher at the University of Michigan whose research showed the disparity in buprenorphine treatment.
Both the prosecution and defense took care while discussing Floyd’s addiction. Such an approach would have been unimaginable two decades ago, medical and legal experts said.
Nelson began his cross-examination Thursday of Ross with a display of sympathy: “I’m sorry to hear about your struggles with opioid addiction,” he began. “Thank you for sharing that with the jury.”
Meanwhile, the prosecution’s prompting of Ross to discuss how she and Floyd struggled with drugs as opposed to downplaying the drug use was also atypical.
In the past, drug use has been cited to villainize witnesses, suspects and those killed by police, especially when they were Black, said several medical and legal experts.
“I don’t think a defense attorney in the ’80s or ’90s would have said, ‘I’m sorry you are struggling with heroin or cocaine or crack’ in those times when it was considered an inner-city drug,” said Yankah, of Cardozo Law.
Floyd died on Memorial Day 2020 after police responded to a 911 call alleging he had used a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. Three other former police officers who responded to the call face charges in Floyd’s death.
Chauvin defended his actions to a witness after Floyd’s unresponsive body was taken away in an ambulance.
“We had to control this guy because he’s a sizable guy. It looks like he’s probably on something,” Chauvin is heard saying in a video.
In contrast, Chauvin’s own troubled past, including 18 complaints filed against him in 19 years as a Minneapolis police officer, will not be the focus of the criminal trial because it could influence the jury against him.
In her testimony, Ross, 45, described Floyd as a fun, kind man who offered to pray with her the first time they met, when she was visiting her son’s father at a homeless shelter where Floyd was a security guard.
She said he was active and never had trouble breathing before his run-in with Chauvin.
Keith Humphreys, a behavioral sciences professor at Stanford University in California and a former member of the George W. Bush White House Advisory Commission on Drug Free Communities, said that if Chauvin and other officers suspected Floyd was high, they should have taken it more seriously when he said he couldn’t breathe because opioid use can slow respiration.
“Even if he was addicted, he didn’t deserve to be killed. It shows the devaluation of the lives of people with drug problems,” Humphreys said. “Police take into custody millions of intoxicated people every year without this happening.”
George Floyd's addiction could change how we talk about drug use and Black Americans – USA TODAY
Like millions of Americans, George Floyd lived with the torment of drug addiction.