White People Are Not Exempt From Drug Overdose

As a writer and advocate for drug policy reform, I often interview mothers who have lost a child to accidental drug overdose. Through voices choked with tears, the mothers pour out their stories, seeming anxious to channel grief into saving someone else's child so that theirs has not died in vain. I am happy to provide the platform on which to memorialize a loved one, but I don't always feel comfortable doing so. Here's why.

Most of the overdose victims I've written about were young white men in their 20s, popular students and athletes who went to private schools and had everything money can buy. And every anguished mother cried, "I never thought this could happen to my family. I thought we were exempt."

Arguably, most middle class whites, myself included, take for granted that our families will not suffer from poverty, crime, violence, addiction, or even police profiling; that our children will not die young, except perhaps from a car accident, hence our numerous driving restrictions.

After the Trayvon Martin shooting, how many parents of color sat their children down for a talk about the dangers of walking in strange neighborhoods, the risk of being profiled by a gun-toting vigilante? Probably many. How many white parents did the same? Probably few. For the most part, our kids can swagger about in hoodies and low-slung pants without getting shot. It's part of white privilege. And for a long time, we've thought exemption from drug overdose was too. But that is starting to change.

Drug overdose currently kills 38,000 people a year in the U.S., but whites make up its largest group of victims. Whites overdose at twice the rate of blacks and Hispanics -- triple when the death involves prescription pain relievers. As the crisis grows, new drug reform laws designed to curb overdose fatalities have swept the country. Fourteen states have recently passed 911 Good Samaritan laws that make it easier to call 911 to report an overdose without fear of police reprisal. Thirteen states have changed policy to increase access to naloxone, a life-saving medication that reverses opioid overdose. And leading the charge for these new laws, at the urging of drug policy reform advocates, are white middle class parents with stories of loss that can melt the hearts of the even most hardened legislator.

"We are not exempt" is a powerful political message. To the old white Senator whose vote can propel or cripple overdose legislation, it means that his children and grandchildren are not immune. It means he can't ignore the problem or brush it aside as something that happens to other kinds of people who deserve the consequences of their poor choices. He knows his kids can make poor choices too, and he doesn't want them to die.

When it comes to drug overdose, and most other societal ills, change seems to happen in direct relation to how much the epidemic creeps into white communities and people who "don't look like drug users" demand action. The pragmatist in me says that's okay; overdose prevention efforts will help everyone regardless of age, class or color, so the messenger doesn't matter. But the human in me, the one who will soon give birth to a biracial daughter, says it's not right.

Most days the pragmatist wins and I seek out the whitest, most suburban mother available to advocate for overdose prevention. Other days I drive through a neighborhood whose mothers have never had the luxury of exemption and I wonder if their stories will ever be heard.