The sentence stuck out in a story about drug trafficking: “He was an unlikely drug kingpin.” It’s a cliché that exposes how systemic bias targets people of color and inhibits effective law enforcement.

“Crime of the Century” is a must-watch HBO documentary series about the nation’s opioid epidemic. Its final episode profiled one man who figured out how to repackage and sell fentanyl bought from China.

The man put together a network of street dealers, a warehouse full of equipment, and so much cash he could barely count it before he was caught. The show’s narrator described him as “an unlikely drug kingpin.”

In 2015, Owen Hanson was sentenced to a long prison term for drug dealing. His cell phone provided the key to an FBI drug-trafficking sting that resulted in arrests in multiple countries, the recovery of approximately $50 million in cash and the seizure of tons of illegal drugs in 2021.

Hanson, a former USC football player and real estate agent from Redondo Beach, California, was described in a newspaper story as “a very unlikely drug kingpin.”

Both the documentary series and the newspaper story are accurate. Both describe how the illegal drug trade works.

The problem is that the reporters, producers and editors, and probably most of their audiences, failed to ask why these particular drug traffickers were “unlikely.”

In public mythology, drug kingpins are South American crime bosses or tattooed gang leaders, not Purdue Pharma executives or the Sackler family, the owner of Purdue, that made billions by pushing the painkiller OxyContin. Drug dealers are stereotyped as black or Hispanic, not working-class kids from intact loving families or beach-town products of good universities.

The stereotypical drug kingpin and dealer are rarely assumed to be white. Except sometimes they are.

The simple fact is that drug abuse, especially of the narcotic fentanyl, happens everywhere. When law enforcement officials, reporters, and the public overlook that fact and perceive only “likely” abusers, they miss real criminals and criminalize innocent people for how they look.

Individuals and communities of color harbor resentment at the constant assumptions of guilt. Law enforcement reputations get tainted. Police-community relations deteriorate. Meanwhile, the business of illicit drug use continues to flourish.

This is not to imply bad faith or actual bias on the part of the producers of these stories or of any particular law enforcement agent. It is to call out the need for everyone to be mindful about the assumptions we make.

At the very least, we should question clichés so casually spoken, written or heard. Turns out, anyone can be a drug kingpin, even the most unlikely.


“Our View” represents the opinion of the newspaper editorial board, which is made up of members of its board of directors. Remarks may be directed to editorialboard@mtexpress.com.

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