The ever-escalating fentanyl crisis in U.S. cities has been particularly acute in the Bay Area. It’s made for some interesting headlines as well, from reports that the head of San Jose’s police union ran an international fentanyl-dealing operation out of her home for years to Elon Musk calling for legalization.
Among supporters of harm reduction, who point to the abysmal failure of the War on Drugs to do much beyond swell the U.S. prison population, the term “drug worker” is a suggested replacement for the term “drug dealer.” A Canadian drug-policy expert’s Twitter thread went viral among certain segments of extremely online people in San Francisco.
At first blush, this response appeared tailor-made to send people through the roof; perhaps the guy who sells you cannabis could plausibly be a “drug worker,” but fentanyl is lethal. Yet “drug worker” may strike some people as a term better suited to the volunteers who educate San Franciscans about how to administer Narcan to someone who’s overdosing.
More importantly, the prevailing political winds have shifted in favor of beefing up the ranks of the San Francisco Police Department, as violent and seemingly random crimes amplify a widespread sense of public disorder.
However, as critics point out, you can’t arrest your way out of a drug crisis, and many people selling fentanyl in San Francisco are known to be victims of human trafficking.
More importantly, this type of humanizing, or “people-first,” language has grown widespread. The best analogy for “drug worker” might be “sex worker,” a term that’s far less pejorative than “prostitute” or “whore” and which acknowledges the fact that sex work is a form of labor that’s been practiced since time immemorial.
Witness, too, the transition from “illegal alien” to “undocumented person” or “unauthorized resident.” These are not quote-unquote woke euphemisms. They are technically correct, as a person cannot be illegal.
At the same time, the discourse surrounding people who sell deadly substances like fentanyl has grown quite heated, with some prominent commentators strongly implying that we should apply capital punishment, or at least look to prohibition models like Singapore’s.
Astrid Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org