The murder of George Floyd

Critics say Chauvin defense 'weaponized' stigma for Black Americans with addiction

A person holds up a portrait of George Floyd as people gather outside the Hennepin County Government Center on April 9 in Minneapolis
A person holds up a portrait of George Floyd as people gather outside the Hennepin County Government Center on April 9 in Minneapolis.
Stephen Maturen | Getty Images

When George Floyd's girlfriend Courteney Ross took the stand for the prosecution in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, 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 Chauvin's trial for killing Floyd last year, his defense has worked to frame the addiction of 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."

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