Let’s be honest: When it comes to drug attitudes and policy in the U.S., there is a lot of hypocrisy, plenty of inequity, and even more apathy. Depending on where you live, the color of your skin, and what socio-economic class you belong to, your relationship to controlled substances and your ideas about what kinds of laws should regulate drug use may vary widely.
Enforcement of existing laws is wildly inconsistent. Marijuana is legal for recreational or medical use in 34 states, and yet, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than half of drug-related arrests in the United States are for marijuana. Those charged with marijuana or other drug related crimes are disproportionately people of color. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison and almost 60 percent of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino. Their research also shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for African Americans as opposed to white people charged with the same offense.
That is why it was surprising when, on October 30, 2019, United States Marshals swooped in to arrest 11 individuals in the Park Cities, Plano, and other upscale Dallas suburbs who are suspected of being part of a massive drug distribution ring. What was shocking wasn’t merely that the alleged members of the drug ring were seemingly ordinary dads and moms—including a Highland Park mother of 10 whose sons were stars on the Highland Park High School football team. There is a predominant attitude in this country that if you live in a white, upper class neighborhood drug laws don’t touch you.
Drugs—legal and illegal—are a socially accepted part of everyday life in Dallas’ affluent neighborhoods. For most people, there is nothing scandalous about moms joking about popping Oxys to get through stressful days or a dad admitting he shared a backyard joint with his teenage son. There is also an assumption—backed up by the data—that if you are white and middle or upper class, there are few consequences of drug use.
But in the case of the Highland Park drug ring busted last October, there were deadly consequences. Investigators connected the ring, which operated out of a townhouse near the Lemmon Ave. Whole Foods, with the overdose death of a 29-year-old man, who died after taking a pill he believed was a prescription opioid. It turned out to be a counterfeit pill containing fentanyl. Another death can be connected to the ring: a former Highland Park High School student who was murdered over a bag of THC cartridges, the kind you can now pick up legally at a retail store in Colorado.
We can see these two deaths through the lens of our country’s contradictory social and legal attitudes towards drugs. One victim was a casualty of the ongoing opioid epidemic—an epidemic, driven by legal drugs pushed by billion-dollar corporations, that is responsible for around 46,000 deaths a year in the United States. The second victim died selling a substance which, had he lived in another state, he would have had no reason to deal illegally. Two different approaches to drug regulation—two different ways to die.
In a story in the April edition of D Magazine, which goes online today, I try to unpack the inner workings of the drug ring that led to these deaths. It was a difficult story to report. Because the investigation is ongoing, the case hasn’t yet gone to trial. Most of the defendants will likely plead guilty, so few of the individuals involved were willing to speak about the case. I pieced together the drug ring’s operations by combing through available court documents and conducting dozens of interviews with people who bought drugs from the ring, hung out on the sidelines at athletic events with some of the defendants, or had a deep working knowledge of the investigation.
What also made the story difficult to report was that, the deeper you dug into the lives and motivations of the people involved, the more challenging it became to differentiate between the perpetrators and the victims of the alleged crimes. What is clear is that the entire ordeal has left everyone involved with broken lives and uncertain futures. The extent of that devastation offers more evidence that it is well beyond time to rethink how we treat pain and addiction in America, and how we approach the regulation and prosecution of controlled substances.
Head here to read the story. There’s one update: Since this article went to press, Gina Corwin, the HP mother of 10, pled guilty to the charge of possessing with intent to manufacture and distribute 50 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine.
The trial—if any defendants go to trial—is indefinitely postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.