Attacking the fentanyl crisis

by Dan Rodricks

I once gave a drug dealer some career advice: Sell cars, not cocaine. The guy seemed open to that idea.

He had come to me in the summer of 2005, after reading one of several columns in which we offered advice for “getting out of the game.”

He was about 30 years old, dressed in a white shirt, black slacks and two-tone shoes. I found him congenial and confident. He described his drug operation as relatively small, disciplined and financially rewarding. He had three or four employees, a regular customer base and a strategic plan for slow to moderate growth.

Importantly, he was not his own best customer; he said he did not do drugs.

In short, the guy had his act together. He was an entrepreneur and a natural salesperson, and I told him so.

Why not sell luxury cars? Why not take a job with a Lexus or Mercedes dealer? He’d probably be good at selling expensive automobiles, and it’s not like he’d get arrested for doing so. I also mentioned real estate sales as a possibility.

He smiled and nodded approvingly at my suggestions. I got the impression that no one had made them before; no one had told the guy he had natural gifts and legit business skills.

He thanked me for the talk and departed. I never heard from him again, but the exchange left me with an impression that several subsequent conversations with other dealers affirmed: There were some savvy people selling dope in Baltimore and its suburbs. They were not addicted to the substances they sold. They were organized and relatively cautious. If the police ever pinched them, they could afford lawyers who helped minimize prison time.

It seemed to me that a lot of Baltimore’s homegrown talent was wasted on selling drugs. Worse, the state of Maryland missed opportunities when, during various periods of incarceration, these men and women were not given career aptitude tests and counseled toward more constructive pursuits.

Prison is about punishment; it might even be about deterring others from committing similar crimes. But, as stated many times, it’s a waste of taxpayer money when prison systems fail to change lives and offenders return to their old ways.

I have a slightly different view of this now, shaped by the opioid epidemic.

It became clear this week, after I received a summary of charges and pleadings in a major fentanyl distribution operation in Maryland. The cases started with an investigation of an overdose by Howard County police and eventually involved the attorney general’s Organized Crime Unit and the Maryland State Police.

Over the last nine months, six defendants pleaded guilty and received prison sentences of varying lengths from judges in Howard County.

One defendant, a 36-year-old man from Odenton, was accused of being a drug kingpin and sentenced to 20 years in prison without the possibility of parole. Police linked the other defendants to his criminal enterprise and, prosecutors say, their sales of fentanyl resulted in several overdoses in Maryland and Virginia, one of them fatal.

Two defendants received prison sentences of 20 years with all but five years suspended; another received a 30-year term with all but 10 suspended.

Some of those sentences seem wholly appropriate, a couple too light.

Let me stop here to acknowledge a couple of things.

First, the world of drug dealing has gotten worse over the last decade. Fentanyl is a killer; it is far more powerful and potentially deadly than heroin or cocaine. Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 110,000 overdose deaths across the nation last year, most of it caused by fentanyl. That is a national crisis. Fatal overdoses in Maryland dropped by about 8%, the CDC said, but that still represented 2,504 deaths in 2022.

This gives me a different view of drug dealers today.

They might possess the same entrepreneurial savvy as some of those I met nearly 20 years ago, but they are selling a far more dangerous product. I think they belong in prison, and I am not opposed to the idea, embraced by some prosecutors in Maryland, of bringing charges of manslaughter and even murder against dealers who supply users with fatal doses.

But I make an important distinction: Prison time for drug dealers who are themselves addicts is plain wrong. These are usually low-level dealers who sell drugs to maintain their habits. They need treatment not punishment. The law and its enforcers must make that distinction.

The more sophisticated drug peddlers — those who run fentanyl operations while avoiding the miseries of addiction themselves — should be dealt with more harshly. Given the potency of the poisons they knowingly distribute, they need to be off the streets for at least five years, and 10 sounds better. If they sold fentanyl that killed someone, sentencing should be even more severe.

Rehabilitation? Career counseling? Yes, but punishment first for fentanyl dealers.

Will it make a difference?

That’s the question that leads to Bleak Street. There’s never been a simple answer to the drug problem.

Even if the most successful fentanyl dealers are imprisoned, we will still have demands for the drug. Men and women who are addicted to opioids will scramble to find another supplier, and someone will certainly fill the void.

Cut off the supply, reduce the demand — we have to do all of it, we haven’t done enough.

Dan Rodricks is a longtime columnist for The Baltimore Sun newspapers, and former host of the Roughly Speaking podcast for baltimoresun.com.