THE BLOG
11/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Job Nobody Wants: In Defense of (Gasp!) Drug Dealers

Twice in my life, in separate decades, I lived off the proceeds of dispensing the elements of temporary physical euphoria. Consenting adults came to me and I gave them a drug for which they handed me money. When I was a bartender, the drug was in legal, liquid form. I paid taxes on what I earned and could tell my mother what I did for a living. Even though most of my regulars were alcoholics, I earned none of society's contempt for getting them drunk, many on a daily basis.

When my own addictive choice changed from alcohol to crystal meth, I went from bartending to drug dealing. It started with getting a little extra for my using buddies, to responding to the requests of their friends. At first my only payoff was in my own drugs being free, then I was suddenly turning a profit. It was its own addictive rush.

I was fairly atypical as far as most drug dealers go. I answered the phone on the first ring, I was friendly and my apartment was clean. Word-of-mouth was all the marketing I needed. I never in a million years would have wanted or needed to "recruit" any new customers, and the ones I had were mostly weekend warriors. I was about as far as you could imagine from the stereotype of the unshaven sleazebag who lounges near grammar school playgrounds, trying to "turn" kids into addicts, yet what I did qualified me for membership in one of the most vilified minorities in America.

Let me be clear. This is not an apologia. Meth is a nasty and addictive drug. I do not advocate its use, have not touched it in 5 years, and the most important thing I do is help others stay clean off of it. But just as meth is a symptom of the disease of drug addiction, so are its purveyors. Every dealer I knew was an addict. And if any of you have ever obtained some mushrooms for Burning Man, done a few bumps of coke at a party, or procured Oxycontin from your maid, you have had a direct or indirect relationship of some kind with a drug dealer. There are even many of you who at some point of your life considered one a friend -- probably in direct proportion to his generosity.

As for the harm done by drugs, some interesting statistics. There are an estimated 443,000 deaths a year in this country due to lung cancer, and at least 100,000 alcohol-related deaths. But according to the CDC, there were just under 38,400 drug-related deaths in 2006, less than a tenth than can be attributed to the thoroughly legal drug of cigarettes. And yet the man at the gas station who hands over the 2 packs of Marlboro Lights is never called the scum of the earth, and the manager at Trader Joe's can recommend Grey Goose or a nice bottle of Chardonnay without being compared to a child molester. The makers of Oxycontin, Valium, and Vicodin -- the biggest drug dealers in the word -- spend no time in prison cells.

I promised an entry on preventing recidivism, but when I went through my list of suggestions, they were subsumed by much larger issues of income inequality, improving education, fixing the juvenile justice system and abolishing parole. In the midst of a political battle in which a liberal President with a Congressional majority has immense difficulty getting the extremely popular idea of health care reform passed, writing up proposals for prison reform seemed a quixotic and hopeless task, done far more competently in any case by Senator Jim Webb, or the heroes over at CURE.

What I'm proposing -- or asking, really -- is perhaps even more elusive than the abolition of poverty, but it has the merit of originality. It's a change in perception. I'm not suggesting we idealize drug dealers as some kind of victims, nor is any glamorization a la "Weeds" required. But we need to examine the wholesale dehumanization of drug dealers or those accused of it. (Are you a dealer because you get the 4 hits of X for yourself and 3 friends to go dancing? If you get caught, the law says you are.)

In Afghanistan and Iraq, a civilian in the wrong place at the wrong time can go from "bystander" to "insurgent" with the pointing of a bayonet. Once so labeled, the presumption is always of guilt, and the altered perception of human beings as "terrorists," i.e, not quite human, is directly linked to a willingness to torture them.

By the same token, once someone is labeled a "drug dealer," -- whether or not they are--they join the "homeless" and "terrorists" in the sense of being "other." The orange jumpsuit distances us further -- when we see the prisoner taken in handcuffs from the courtroom, we don't want to think his experience behind those closed doors is like ours would be. We tell ourselves they must be guilty, they're used to it, whatever we need to not empathize, to not imagine how grim and frightening and grey it is back there. We pass the exits to "State Correctional Facility" on the highway and if we think of it at all, it's mostly to shudder in thanks that we're not there.

I remember how many of my fellow inmates never even received one piece of mail. The sense that you've been forgotten is a soul-killing despair. This willingness to throw away and forget men behind walls is the end of a long process of dehumanization that starts with a series of labels. The adjectives may be perfectly accurate, but they also diminish our capacity to remember there's a human being involved, not just a "gang member," a "defendant," a "drug dealer."

So change your thinking. Take a moment to question the meanings you attach to certain words, how you allow them to create a sense that what makes us different in the eyes of the law is somehow more important than what makes us similar as human beings. And when you pass one of those busses going down to county jail full of handcuffed men, wave. The man who sees you may need to be reminded that he is still seen.