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Stop weaponizing addiction

George Floyd and Hunter Biden probably had little in common — except for the ways they’re demonized for substance use disorder.

In this video image from April 1, witness Courteney Ross answers questions in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of her boyfriend, George Floyd. Ross testified that both she and Floyd suffered from addiction to opioids.
In this video image from April 1, witness Courteney Ross answers questions in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of her boyfriend, George Floyd. Ross testified that both she and Floyd suffered from addiction to opioids.Associated Press

When she took the witness stand last week in Minneapolis, probably few had heard of Courteney Ross. Yet in her tearful testimony, many may have recognized her story as their own.

“Floyd and I both suffered with opioid addiction,” Ross told a prosecutor about her boyfriend George Floyd, whom she always called by his surname. “Both Floyd and I, our story is a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids. We both suffered from chronic pain — mine was in my neck, his was in his back. We both had prescriptions, but after prescriptions that were filled, we got addicted, and tried really hard to break that addiction many times.”


Like millions of Americans, Floyd struggled with substance use disorder. The defense attorney for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer accused of murdering Floyd, wants to weaponize that fact, even though Floyd did not succumb to his addiction. He was killed last Memorial Day when Chauvin pressed his knee down on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes during an arrest.

Asked by the prosecution Monday whether Floyd’s cardiac arrest was caused by “oxygen deficiency,” Dr. Bradford Langenfeld, who pronounced Floyd dead, said that “asphyxia,” was “one of the more likely possibilities” for Floyd’s death.

Yet from his opening statement, Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s defense attorney, made it clear that he would put Floyd’s addiction on trial.

“The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, his coronary disease, the ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline flowing through his body, all of which acted to further compromise an already compromised heart.”

This nation has a long history of punishing those who use or possess drugs, especially Black and brown people. America has the world-leading mass incarceration rates to prove it.


In making Floyd’s opioid use a fulcrum of his defense, Nelson is excoriating those who struggle with substance use disorder. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, this nation was already deep in the throes of an opioid epidemic that has been exacerbated in this past year of isolation, stress, and loneliness.

During a 12-month period ending last June, overdoses killed 81,003 people nationwide. That’s the highest number of fatal overdoses ever recorded in the United States in a single year. Attacking those who struggle with addiction only foments shame and scorn, pushing some to retreat even further.

That’s what Donald Trump did during last year’s campaign for the White House. In a presidential debate, he said that Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, was “thrown out” and “dishonorably discharged” from the US Navy Reserve for “cocaine use.” It’s not just that Trump’s claim was false; the younger Biden received an administrative discharge in 2014 after he tested positive for cocaine. It’s that Trump also sought to use Hunter Biden’s addiction as a smear against his father.

Hunter Biden has recently been promoting a new memoir, “Beautiful Things,” which details the cycles of recovery and relapse that have threatened and defined his life. In an interview on “CBS This Morning,” he said, “I don’t know of a force more powerful than my family’s love — except addiction.”

Two years before his death from an accidental overdose in 2020, singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle gave a monologue during a concert to garner more compassion and less judgment toward people who struggle with substance use disorder.


“We say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ The problem is, they hurt. So you don’t ask them ‘What’s wrong with you.’ You ask them, ‘Why do you hurt?’” he said. “It’s not going to solve anything, but it’ll get you closer to the heart of the matter than locking them up, making them feel like degenerates, and thinking you’re better than them.”

Billie Holiday
Billie HolidayDecca Jazz

Then Earle sang “White Gardenias,” a song he wrote about his favorite singer, Billie Holiday. For the last 20 years of her life, Holiday was targeted by the FBI, arrested, and jailed for her drug use because authorities wanted to stop her from performing her anti-lynching anthem, “Strange Fruit.”

In a concerted effort to silence a song that told the brutal truth about America’s racism, law enforcement weaponized Holiday’s addiction. That’s what is happening to Floyd. To exonerate his client, Nelson will focus on what was in Floyd’s system while the real killer is a system of racist policing that allowed Chauvin, who had at least 17 complaints during his 19-year career, to roam a city’s streets with a badge, a gun, and a lethal disregard for human life.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.