My emotions teeter between exasperation and outrage each day I read the trial recap of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with killing George Floyd.
I’m not naïve. I know how these killer cop trials go. The defense drags the deceased victim’s reputation through the mud — “he was a big Black man prone to violence” or “he was under the influence of a drug” — to create a smoke screen, to generate empathy for the cop. From Michael Brown to Philando Castile, too many judges and juries have fallen victim to this tired ploy — the “drug-crazed Negro” script —when a white police officer kills a Black person.
True to form, Mr. Chauvin’s lawyers have tried to deflect blame from his brutal act onto the drugs found in Mr. Floyd’s body at the time of his death. “The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, his coronary disease, ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline flowing through his body,” defense attorney Eric Nelson told the jury. In other words, Mr. Floyd might still be alive today had he not taken drugs. Shame on us if we buy this bogus defense this time.
I’m a neuropsychopharmacologist who researches drug addiction. My work has focused on the unjust and unscientific stigmas surrounding drug use and the criminalization of drugs around the globe. The defense’s attempt to paint Mr. Floyd as a crazed drug addict relies on retrograde myths about the impact of drugs on our bodies and minds.
While it’s true Mr. Floyd had small amounts of methamphetamine and THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, in his blood — 19 and 2.9 nanograms per milliliter, respectively — those numbers strongly suggest he hadn’t used them in at least several hours, maybe a day.
Also, Mr. Floyd’s methamphetamine levels were far below those I have found, in my laboratory research on dozens of participants, necessary to induce significantly elevated cardiovascular activity: greater than 25 nanograms per milliliter. The amount of methamphetamine (and THC) found in Mr. Floyd’s blood was too low for it to have had any meaningful effect on him.
His blood also had 11 nanograms of fentanyl, America’s latest vilified drug. Fentanyl (or its analogs) that is laced with heroin or other drugs and sold illegally for recreational use can be very dangerous or deadly. But it’s important that we don’t fall prey to misinformed and dangerous myths about the drug. Media reports, government agencies, and law enforcement have repeatedly claimed that minuscule amounts of skin exposure to the drug can cause an overdose. This is incontrovertibly false. As fear around fentanyl grows, so too does criminalization: In Florida, for example, a fentanyl-related overdose death can result in a drug-induced homicide charge for traffickers, even if many are unaware that what they are selling has been cut with the drug.
You should know, too, that fentanyl is an FDA-approved opioid medication used in the treatment of severe pain. In the United States, the drug has been used for this purpose for more than 50 years. It even comes in a child-friendly, sweetened lollipop formulation. Fentanyl is a safe and effective medication when used as prescribed.
So, what does 11 nanograms of fentanyl tell us about Mr. Floyd’s mental and physical state moments before his death? Not much, because the same amount of fentanyl that produces pleasure in a tolerant user can result in an overdose in an infrequent user. That’s why, together with the toxicology report, we have to interpret Mr. Floyd’s behavior shortly before he was killed, which is a barometer of a person’s impairment.
We saw that he was emotionally appropriate and behaving rationally, considering the circumstances. Minutes before his encounter with police, he purchased an item from a deli and was about to leave when officers asked him to get out of his car. Together, these observations suggest he had developed some level of tolerance to fentanyl-related effects and show how unlikely it is that drugs played a role in his death. People on the verge of dying from an opioid overdose are inactive and look visibly drowsy. He was neither.
Instead, videos show Mr. Chauvin callously pressing his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck as he repeatedly yelled out “I can’t breathe” — a rational reaction — until he became unresponsive, while two other officers helped pin him down by applying pressure to his back. Two different medical examiners — one from the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office and one hired by Mr. Floyd’s family — classified Mr. Floyd’s death a homicide, corroborating what we all saw with our own eyes.
But if history is any indication, medical documentation and video evidence may not be enough to refute racist drug mythology.
In the early 20th century, the white establishment increasingly viewed drug use by racial minorities as a threat to the social order. Prominent newspapers, physicians, and politicians peddled lurid, false stories about Chinese opium-den owners inducing white women into their establishments to defile them. Officials concocted tales about Black men who took cocaine turning into homicidal criminals impervious to bullets and forcing white women into prostitution. Others promoted incredible stories about Black and Mexican American marijuana users and violent crimes. These fabrications facilitated passage of the country’s first nationwide drug laws.
The racialized drug-crazed rhetoric of the past has not passed. It is revitalized with each new generation.
Some version of this played-out defense was put forth when former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed teenager Michael Brown, when former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed teenager Laquan McDonald, when former Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed a defenseless Philando Castile, and when former Tulsa police officer Betty Jo Shelby shot and killed a nonthreatening Terence Crutcher. Drugs did not contribute to any of these individuals’ deaths. But officers’ depraved indifference for Black life certainly did.
For centuries, the myth of the drug-crazed Negro has exonerated police from barbaric killings of Black Americans. This will change when the humanity of people who look like George Floyd is valued, by the dominant culture, equally to that of white women. It will not change a minute sooner.
Carl L. Hart is the Dirk Ziff professor of psychology (in psychiatry) at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming Drug Use for Grown-ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear.