Incarceration or Treatment: The Myth of Addiction

In the last few years, as the consequences of opioid use have become more recognized among white people--so widespread this is now considered an epidemic--reforms for drug policies have finally been considered. But the "opioid epidemic" comes with softer language, and generally, a more moderate response than past initiatives. This new emphasis--on the treatment of addiction instead of incarceration--represents a new paradigm. For the entirety of the "War on Drugs," policies concerning substance use have been directed toward criminalization. Yet this criminalization, as with many forms of the justice system, is largely steeped in racist narratives. The system of drug enforcement continues to disproportionately affect black people.

The racialized discourse of substance use dates farther back than the notorious "War on Drugs," into the 19th century. In the 1800's, use of substances like cocaine among black people was thought to create villainous super-humans, akin to the account of "super-predators" described during the 1990's. These paralleled beliefs held merit in most people's minds until recently--serving to confirm notions of black people as morally deficient, and used as justification for disgraceful acts of violence, including lynching. However, by the time the "War on Drugs" began, this kind of violence was no longer acceptable. As many now recognize, the justice and carceral systems served as a new means to disenfranchise and repress the black people community.

Indeed, the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, which immediately preceded the "War on Drugs," motivated the obscuring of structural racism. The "War," created by President Nixon, became a pivotal issue for his administration, and aided in converting a system that had long thrived on clear, systematic disparities, and made them less visible. For the white population, it was no longer acceptable to publicly embrace the racism of figures like George Wallace. Thus, the "War on Drugs" became a proxy for supremacy, creating the marginalized "addict," who was almost always portrayed as black people. And though these policies set out to limit the use of narcotics, they did everything but, instead preying on some of the poorest, most vulnerable sections of the population, and furthering already-established economic and social inequalities.

Undeniably, the "War on Drugs" involved more than shifting the focus of the justice and penal systems. It was also a continued embodiment of the myth that black people were morally deficient. Years after the "War on Drugs" began, President Reagan, alongside First Lady Nancy, moved to openly affect the discourse on drugs, making substance use prevention into a national campaign. "Just Say No," Nancy Reagan's call to vulnerable youth, did not immediately change the tactics of the U.S. government. Instead, it may have affected public perception, reengaging the attitude that addiction was a moral or personal failing--a choice to which one could simply say "no." In 1986, 50% of Americans saw drug use in this manner, according to a New York Times-CBS poll, signifying the penetration of the Reagan message.

Though current addiction science fails to support this narrative, the "Just Say No" campaign fit perfectly with it. By 1989, just as President H.W. Bush was taking office, 64 percent of respondents to a New York Times-CBS poll rated drugs as the nation's number one problem, a dramatic rise in the urgency Americans felt concerning the impact of substance use, despite no clear signs that drug use was actually increasing. Only a half-a-decade prior, that figure was in the single digits. This was a deliberate effort to retroactively justify the "War on Drugs." It stood to reason that this artificial scourge of drug use had to be rectified. If people couldn't hold themselves back from drug abuse, they didn't simply need punishment. They deserved it. In white America, few felt the brunt of this perception, and the ensuing prejudice. It was believed drug abuse wasn't in the suburbs where many white people lived. It was elsewhere.

It was true that Reagan's "War on Drugs" campaign focused heavily on the "crack epidemic," a drug largely associated with an already assailed urban black population. The narrative of inadequate personal control and moral turpitude among black people, and particularly black drug users, made the "crack epidemic" the perfect target for a new wave of punitive drug policies. This account could not reasonably support drug abuse as a universal American problem--i.e., a white problem, too. The same group was targeted; the process of othering black people in America was as powerful as ever, taking on the moralistic façade that proved effective for hundreds of years. The mechanism was addiction.

White people, who supposedly didn't use crack cocaine, remained practically immune to law enforcement, and ergo sum, couldn't possibly be addicted. The laws concerning powder cocaine reinforced this notion: crack cocaine penalties were mandated to be 100 times greater than powder cocaine. Additionally, the policing tactics related to crack--almost exclusively in black neighborhoods, using strategies most would consider entrapment--created a penal system where it was clear who would be arrested and imprisoned for drug infractions, no matter how minor. One could see this policing as a new form of terrorizing the black community; militaristic forces that descended on black neighborhoods, targeting anyone that fit into an archetype of "drug-dealer" or "addict." Though the statistics on drug abuse didn't justify this antagonism, even at the highest wave of the "epidemic," addiction needed to be seen as foreign, even alien to white people to maintain socio-economic supremacy.

This othering also allowed many addicted and drug dealing white Americans to avoid incarceration, and in all likelihood, treatment. For the number of white people who recognized their addiction, there was no active, well-known and recognized response by the justice or health systems to address it. Whites were blameless; they didn't live in the neighborhoods where these policing tactics played out, and therefore could never be held responsible. The justice system--so often a reactionary apparatus of the state--attacked only the black population; and the health system, usually so much more attentive to hegemonic white, did nothing, beholden to supremacy and fearful of stigma. Perhaps as a consequence of these unequal policies, the normalization of drug use among white people reached new heights.

The lack of attention put on white addiction would at least partially explain the rise of drug abuse in that population. In turn, the displaced--and very unnecessary--focus on black people contributed to the largest prison population in the world: Today, black people constitute around half of all incarcerations, representing our toxic duality.

Yet black people are statistically no more likely than white people to use or sell illicit substances--despite notions otherwise--something that has been consistently true since national data was first collected on this issue in 1975. Still, much of America still is unaware or misinformed about who is using and addicted to drugs. Even recently, the fear in white communities of drug use was approximately equal to that in black communities, according to a Pew study from 2014. The myth of addiction continues.