I am tired of hearing people say the drug war is not about race. Every day, we admit this war is about race without saying it directly. We use code phrases like “the face of drug use is changing” and “good kids from good families are dying now.” But what exactly do we mean when we say these things? What did the face of drug use look like before? How do we define “good kids” and “good families”?
People of color have been dying from drug use and drug policy-related causes long before prescription opioids hit the scene. During the 1980s and 1990s the media created a narrative of strung-out crackheads with guns, whipping up a frenzy of fear and anger at slovenly addicts sucking up welfare checks and dangerous inner city super-predators. Meanwhile politicians trotted out laws banishing nonviolent drug offenders to decades in prison with nary a twinge of conscience. They even patted each other on the back for cleaning trash off the streets.
For decades people of color have been rounded up and caged like animals, leaving entire communities where heads of households suddenly disappeared. Family members plunged into poverty by the loss of their breadwinners have often turned to the streets for survival and then found themselves blamed for the resulting cycle of crime and poverty.
For a time, the drug enforcement strategy worked well for those in power. The prison system became the fastest growing for-profit system in the country. Law enforcement enjoyed a huge uptick in department size and access to civil forfeiture money and military toys. The voters were satisfied that the poverty and devastation left behind in black communities was a consequence of laziness and immorality. But years later, when the drug du jour switched from cocaine to opioids, things started to go wrong.
Now that the collateral consequences of the drug war have seeped like poison into the areas that were supposed to be protected, the politicians are panicking and the masterminds wallow in regret and apology. This war was never intended to claim the white suburbs, and if only the plague had remained contained to a quiet ethnic cleansing we would not see the public outcry and the pleas for compassion and mercy that ring out all over the nation.
Today we see some communities responding to the opioid scourge by implementing policies that only further racial disparities. Some create diversion programs and drug courts that offer treatment and deferred sentencing – but only to opioid users. Some launch task forces to address the public health and social consequences of drug use – but only for opioid users. Some may even go as far as to reform sentencing laws – but only for opioid users.
I dare you to tell me this is not about race.
The single-minded focus on opioids is wrong. It is discrimination. Not only that but it sets us up to repeat the mistakes we made during previous decades. Opioids may be the drug of today but they are not guaranteed to be the drug of tomorrow. If all our efforts focus around a response to opioids – without looking into broader questions of racial equity in drug policy, law enforcement and public health across the spectrum of drug use – we will be ill-equipped to tackle the next drug crisis when it comes. Ill-equipped and uninformed populations are vulnerable to the same kind of fear-mongering that shaped our cruel and ineffective response to the crack epidemic.
Communities are responding to the opioid crisis at unprecedented levels. New alliances are forming between strangers or even former nemeses. Decades-old laws and policies are actually starting to change. Stigma is slowly dissipating, one interpersonal relationship at a time. There is potential to make a real impact here. Let’s not squander it by focusing on one drug used primarily by white people, leaving ourselves exposed and unprepared for the next epidemic when it hits. We could use this opportunity to challenge current drug policies and to create plans to keep communities healthy and whole, plans that recognize that drugs always have been and always will be part of our world. These plans should also recognize how racial prejudices and biases impact drug policy and work actively to fight against those tendencies.
The face of drug use is changing, but it will change again. How will we respond when it does?