Treating Drug Use as a Crime or as an Addiction May Just Depend On Your Race

The war on drugs created an environment where judges and lawmakers sent drug-users to jail instead of rehab. Abusing drugs was not a health problem, but criminal conduct worthy of jail time. The result was devastating on communities of color, despite studies that stated white and black individuals use drugs at comparable rates.

Racial disparities in drug sentencing are nothing new. Crack cocaine, seen as a drug for poor, inner city blacks, was punished one hundred times more harshly than powder cocaine, a drug associated with rich whites, before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Today, crack cocaine is still punished eighteen times more harshly than its powdered sibling. The harsh sentences for crack cocaine users sent millions of black people to jail. However, today, for heroin users, who are predominantly white, rehabilitative techniques versus punitive punishments are called upon.

Now, drug addiction, especially to drugs such as heroin, is increasingly reframed as a public health problem. In the years since many draconian laws criminalizing drug use have passed, society better understands drug addiction and the harsh realities of jailing non-violent drug users. However, it is possible that the uptick in whites becoming addicted to drugs such as heroin is shifting the rhetoric on punishing addicts.

Heroin addiction amongst young, white, suburban individuals is exploding and their families are using influence to hit back. Michael Botticelli, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy, stated,"[b]ecause the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered."

There is an obvious double standard of treating whites as victims capable of reform and in need of rehabilitation and blacks as perpetrators of drug use who must go to jail. In certain places, like Gloucester Massachusetts, which is almost 92% white, individuals can walk into a police station with drug paraphernalia, like needles, and not be arrested. This is a luxury that young, urban, people of color do not enjoy.