African-Americans have been decrying the war on drugs ever since Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” in the ’70s and we became the face of addiction and designated the driving force behind it. The war on Blacks disguised as a war on drugs has meant tougher sentences for crack possession (typically found in poor Black neighborhoods) versus cocaine (often used by upper-class whites); increased arrests and incarceration rates of Black men (because you can only find a problem where you go looking for it); and widespread economic and emotional disparities with Black kids being raised in single-parent homes with one income.
For decades no one has cared about the trickle down effect of these injustices, but now that the drug problem in the ‘burbs can no longer be hidden thanks to heroin, suddenly drug abuse is a disease not a crime and white people want the war on drugs to come to an end. As the New York Times reported in a recent piece on the heroin crisis:
“When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.
“And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.”
It’s an hypocritical slap in the face to the Black families whose cries for help an allegations of discrimination have fallen on deaf ears for 30-plus years. And yet, sadly, quite possibly the only glimmer of hope we’ve seen for change in decades. As Michael Botticelli, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, pointed out, “Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered. They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”
The question is whether that conversation is an all-inclusive one and the answer, most likely, is no. See in the way the war on drugs dwindled down to a war on blacks, whether crack addicts or dope dealers, these white suburban parents are only concerned with a potential war on their white heroine-addicted children and new policies reflect that laser focus.
“[S]ome local police departments have stopped punishing many heroin users,” The Times points out. “In Gloucester, Mass., those who walk into the police station and ask for help, even if they are carrying drugs or needles, are no longer arrested. Instead, they are diverted to treatment, despite questions about the police departments’ unilateral authority to do so. It is an approach being replicated by three dozen other police departments around the country.
“How these policies evolve in the first place, and the connection with race, seems very stark,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which examines racial issues in the criminal justice system.
Considering we can barely be involved in a routine traffic stop without dying I shudder to think what would happen if a Black person walked into a police station and attempted the same. Like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who specializes in racial issues at Columbia and U.C.L.A. law schools, told The Times, I also wonder where the African-American community would be today if drugs weren’t looked at as a poor minority issue from the start.
“This new turn to a more compassionate view of those addicted to heroin is welcome,” she said. “But one cannot help notice that had this compassion existed for African-Americans caught up in addiction and the behaviors it produces, the devastating impact of mass incarceration upon entire communities would never have happened.”
Image Credits: AP/Getty Images