Last week’s New Yorker magazine featured a tragic exposé on law enforcement’s use of young, untrained informants in its efforts to nab suspected drug offenders. These teen informants cooperate with the police in exchange for a reduction of their own drug charges. But in some cases, “cooperation” means participating in dangerous drug busts in which these kids are putting their lives—and their recovery—on the line. The title of the article, “The Throwaways,” is an apt description of the problem. Sadly, these teens are not treated as young people who need help, but as expendable members of our society.
The story follows the families of several young informants who were murdered by criminals who had discovered they were “snitching.” The parents of these young people are justified in their search for answers as to why their children were put in harm’s way. The answer, I believe, has to do with the fact that our country has historically addressed its drug problem as a criminal justice issue, not as a public health issue.
This misinformed perspective has contributed to America’s explosive incarceration rates—and legitimized the use of amateur informants like Rachel Hoffman, a young woman who was undergoing drug treatment when the police recruited her. After Rachel was killed in a botched sting, law enforcement refused to take responsibility. They simply called Rachel, who faced nonviolent drug charges, “a criminal.” “Do we feel responsible?” responded the police chief who headed the failed operation. “We’re responsible for the safety of this community.” In other words, Rachel’s life meant nothing; she deserved no protection.
The reality is that young people like Rachel have a chronic health condition. Even if she had survived the bust, she never should have been put in a situation that jeopardized her recovery. We wouldn’t send a young diabetic with a sweet tooth to buy candy. So, why would we force a young person struggling with addiction to interact with drug dealers and users? Why would we expose her to the same dangerous and illegal behavior we’re trying to prevent her from emulating?
As clinicians, our governing rule is “do no harm.” This principle should be adopted by everyone involved in our country’s efforts to curb substance abuse—from police officers to policymakers. It’s not only the right approach from a moral standpoint, but from a practical one, as well. We will never solve America’s drug problem with a supply-side approach alone. Only by addressing the demand for drugs through treatment, prevention, and early intervention can we end the cycle of addiction—and help people turn their lives around.
Rachel’s parents and other families are rightly campaigning for legislation that would prevent other vulnerable young people from being used as “disposable pawns in the criminal justice system.” No untrained person should be sent into the lion’s den simply because it is allegedly “cost effective.” In the long run, the most effective strategy is to put young substance abusers’ recovery first. It ultimately saves healthcare and criminal justice costs—and most importantly, it saves lives.
Director, Phoenix House Academy of San Diego