No one wins when we demonize drug dealers.

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Illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa

It’s been nearly 5 years since my best friend died from a heroin overdose.

Ryan* was a titan of a kid, an elite athlete and a prodigious musician with a scientific intellect and drive to succeed I’ve never seen anyone else approach.

He was a rare quantity in our circle of friends on suburban Long Island, and for years we stuck together like glue.

He was there the first and last time I ever used heroin. I was there the first time he ever shot up, huddled for cover under the awning of a gas station in the pouring rain on prom night.

But our bond went way beyond that.

We spent countless hours plucking away at guitar strings and watching space documentaries. We had heartfelt talks when first one, then both of us had to leave college in shame. Through it all, there was this feeling we could rise above our own worst qualities, that we just had to.

Battling his demons, he still managed to will his way into a spot in Stony Brook University’s physics program in a matter of months. I started getting sober and had to stay away for a bit, but we both knew our ties were too strong to be cut.

The last time we spoke, he sent me a text telling me scientists figured out how to ferromagnetize graphene molecules. I still have no idea what that means.

This incomparable genius died from a heroin overdose on May 17, 2016, like so many thousands of people before and since.

He was alone in his basement at the end. By the time someone found him and the ambulance came, there was nothing left to do. They didn’t even bother putting their lights on as they drove him to the morgue. He was 20 years old.

I was across the country when I got the phone call. I’ll never forget my buddy’s voice on the other end of the line, crumbling as he struggled to say the words.

It wasn’t necessarily that surprising. We’d worried about this day for a long time. But in that moment, faced with the crushing weight of the thing, it just didn’t seem possible.

How could such a meteor of a person go like this? What went through his mind in those last moments? Was there anything I could have done? I know I’m not the only one who lost sleep trying to find those answers.

The rage was quick to follow. A whole network of people tried to find out who sold Ryan a bad batch. Within a day we had a name. I told everyone to wait until I got back home before we did anything.

I was going to kill this guy. Nobody was taking that from me. I began to plan.

Nearly a half decade on, it scares me thinking how close I came to disaster. If it weren’t for physical distance, the love of my family, a few wise friends, and a ton of lucky breaks, I might have made the worst mistake of my life.

It’s still hard to talk about these thoughts, but I don’t think I’m the only person who ever mulled over revenge-killing a drug dealer.

When I see “Shoot Your Local Heroin Dealer” merchandise on Amazon, I see the same misplaced anger that nearly drove me to take a life.

When I see states debate charging dealers with murder over fatal overdoses, I see that misplaced anger worm its way into harmful policy decisions.

That anger already has a body count in the Philippines, and I don’t want to see the same thing happen in the United States.

I knew Ryan was a good kid who struggled with a sickness. But the guy who sold him the heroin he died using? He might as well have been a demon eating rats in a cave somewhere.

I didn’t know him. I only knew he was the merchant for a moment that destroyed so many people I love. To me, he was easy to hate, and when I spoke of him in the weeks that followed, I spoke about “the guy who killed Ryan.”

While I was still marinating on my revenge plot, I called a friend of mine who’d lost a son to an overdose a few years back. He listened as I told him my plan in the kind of detail I don’t care to repeat.

When I finished, he had one question for me:

“So, you’re Batman now?”

I laughed, probably for the first time in days. He caught me off guard in my blinding anger, made me realize that maybe all 5 feet 6 inches of me wasn’t quite vigilante material.

I had to concede that, no, I guess I’m not Batman. We spoke for a while after, but what he tried to get through to me was simple: I should be grateful it wasn’t me who died, and I should be grateful it wasn’t me who killed somebody.

That shift of perspective was where things started to change for me.

I thought of my mother, of all the times when I was active in my addiction that she told me she’d jump in the casket after me if something ever happened.

My dad died a few years before I got sober. If I went so soon after her husband, I can’t even imagine what it would have done to my mom.

I thought about Ryan’s mom burying her son, about the horrible gulf in her life that kind of loss brings.

Then I thought about the dealer’s mom. I know a lot of people who lost children to overdoses, but what kind of pain goes through somebody whose child had a hand in that loss?

Suddenly, he became something more than a monster; he was somebody’s son. How could I do what I’d been planning to somebody’s son?

As I hung up the phone, I knew I wasn’t murdering anybody. Not long after, someone suggested I start praying for the guy.

Spirituality’s been an important part of my journey to recovery, and here it proved as crucial as ever. I prayed for him every day for months. After a while, the venom started draining out of me.

I was making progress, but all of my initial rage came flooding back when I read the news that the dealer had been arrested for his part in Ryan’s death.

That bastard was getting the book thrown at him. They were trying to charge him with homicide. If that stuck, his life was as good as over.

All that empathy I’d developed vanished, and I started fantasizing about his fate in a cell. My stomach wretched when the reaction passed and I realized I’d wished torment upon somebody I thought I’d forgiven.

Then something really crazy happened.

That dealer and Ryan had originally gotten in touch because the dealer once shared a four-man jail cell with another friend of ours.

When I shared the news about the homicide charge with some friends, one of them came up to speak with me afterward.

Turns out, he was in that same cell.

Without thinking, I asked him what the guy was like, and he told me. I heard about a good kid, a young man who struggled with the same problems I did and got into selling to help fund his addiction.

I could keep looking down on him if I wanted to, but the truth was clear: He and I were the same in that when we were in our sickness, we steamrolled whatever blocked our way.

The only difference was that I was lucky enough to have some money after my father died. I didn’t stay away from drug dealing because I was somehow “better” than the people who did, I just never had to do it.

It took a lot more prayer and many more long conversations with people I trusted to really scrub the hate from my heart. Now that the guy’s in prison for the next decade and a half, I might not ever be sure how I’d react if we came face to face.

There’s a dark hypocrisy in the way we treat addiction in this country.

We’re years past “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E., and better off for it. In 2016, the U.S. surgeon general released an unprecedented report about substance use that declared addiction to be a health issue, not a moral failing.

Yet people’s empathy for those living with addiction often warps into something much less forgiving the moment they do something unsavory, whether that’s selling drugs or driving under the influence.

My point here isn’t that somebody with 10 DWIs should be allowed back on the road without any consequences.

But when the Facebook comments under the article for someone’s 10th arrest are all about how they should be locked up, it betrays the way we fall back on moralizing this illness when it shows up in ways we don’t like.

It’s in drug dealers that all of this vitriol and hypocrisy — systemic and personal — comes to a head.

And for what? It doesn’t bring back our loved ones. It doesn’t put a dent in the contamination of the drug supply. It doesn’t help anyone heal.

I’m nervous about telling this story, of whether any of this is really worth dredging up again.

But I hope people can learn from my experience and find it in themselves to look at people living with addiction with empathy, regardless of what they’re driven to do in the depths of their illness.

A 2019 report from the Drug Policy Alliance suggests a sizable overlap between drug dealers and consumers. If we keep sectioning one off from the other, we’re only perpetuating one of the most insidious parts of the stigma around people experiencing addiction: that only some of them are worthy of love.

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.

Mike Adams is a reporter and editor from Kings Park, New York. Mike previously served as editor of the Great Neck Record, produced stories from Cuba and Ecuador, and has bylines in Current Affairs, The Osprey, The Smithtown News, and The Northport Observer. When he’s not working, he likes to hang out with his friend Phillip, who is a rabbit.