When A Drug Epidemic Hit White America, Addiction Became A Disease

The scorn and dehumanization of the crack epidemic has been replaced by empathy and rehabilitation.
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art by Jesse Mechanic

One would have to be a sadist of a particularly obstinate nature to argue against our national evolution in the way we approach addiction and drug usage in general (though we are still not where we need to be). For the most part, we are more compassionate, more empathetic, more logical; we now largely view addiction as a disease rather than a conscious collapse of morals. It’s good timing too. The opioid epidemic is the largest drug epidemic in recorded history, resulting in over 500,000 deaths since 2000.

But the question is, why now? What tipped the scales and led formerly staunch supporters of the war on drugs to rethink their approach?

The answer is white people.

White people got addicted.

I am far from the first person to point out this obvious connection, but it certainly bears repeating.

For the most part (sans certain cold-blooded men who are intent on defying logic and data in order to ride the status quo into the blaring sun) the opioid epidemic is being treated far differently than recent drug epidemics. Chris Christie’s best moment (aside from making Rubio malfunction) during the 2015/16 presidential primary was when he spoke about the need for more compassion for addicts. At the end of his presidency, Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act, which, in addition to pledging billions for medical research, allocated $1.5 billion for substance abuse treatment.

The opioid epidemic has, at least recently, been met with empathy, creativity, and heart. The crack epidemic of the 1980s was met with scorn and punishment. The rhetoric around crack painted addicts as wild animals, “super-predators” who needed to be brought to “heel.” It was easier for lawmakers, pundits and the like to separate themselves from the crisis, as nearly all of them were white and well-off. The crack epidemic almost exclusively impacted people of color living in poor neighborhoods—it was a problem of another world. This made it far easier to implement draconian policies that actively dehumanized those afflicted.

Prior to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the sentencing ratio of crack vs. cocaine was 100:1. That means that, as the New York Times pointed out, an individual caught with 50 grams of crack would be sentenced to 10 years in prison, while the cocaine equivalent would be possession of 5,000 grams.

They are the same drug. But one (cocaine) was associated with upper-class Caucasians and the other (crack) was associated with lower-class people of color.

This breakdown by Cardozo School of Law Professor Ekow Yankah elucidates on the glaring disparity:

And then, there’s marijuana. The recent legalization of marijuana in seven states is a great thing; it makes sense on every level. But as Michelle Alexander (author of the phenomenal book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) pointed out in Salon, most of the money being brought in by the recent legalization has benefitted well-to-do white men. While, conversely, there are still thousands of black men in prison for selling marijuana, and others who now bear criminal records that make it incredibly difficult to climb out of the cycle of poverty. “They can be discriminated against employment, housing, access to education, public benefits. They’re locked into a permanent second-class status for life[,]” Alexander said.

White people with money weren’t affected by the crack epidemic, it was out of sight, out of mind. But things have changed. A study by JAMA Psychiatry found that heroin usage among white people has risen dramatically over the last decade. The opioid epidemic has cast a wide net; it has traversed neighborhoods of all shapes, sizes and income levels. Now, we, the populace at large and those who purport to lead us, care deeply about the issue of drug addiction. The fierce condemnation and accompanying villainization of the ’80s and ’90s have been replaced by a nurturing, sympathetic approach.

In 2017, there’s an active push to be more empathetic, to tackle the problem at its source, to treat addiction as an illness rather than punish those stricken by it. This shift (though, again, it hasn’t shifted far enough) is a wonderful thing. The opioid epidemic is an enormous issue and any evolution in the way we approach the problem of drug addiction should be welcomed with open arms.

But when people wonder why the cycle of poverty exists, why certain areas remain depressed, we need to recognize the precipitating factors at work. If the crack epidemic was handled like the opioid epidemic is being handled, if there was never a 100:1 crack to cocaine sentencing disparity, if marijuana was decriminalized in the ’80s, if African Americans didn’t continually have their civil rights violated while being disproportionately targeted by law enforcement in large cities, things would look a lot different.

Previously published on The Overgrown.

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