The Current Opioid Crisis Highlights a Racial Double Standard
By Katie McBeth — Originally published at intpolicydigest.org on September 14, 2017.
The American opioid epidemic was first brought to the general public’s attention in 2016 and quickly became a national health crisis by mid-2017. Currently, more people in the United States die of opioid overdoses than car accidents and guns. The U.S. Surgeon General of the Obama administration, Dr. Vivek Murthy, noted after issuing a report on addiction: “90 percent of people with a substance use disorder are not getting treatment. That has to change.”
Luckily, opioid addiction is beginning to get the coverage it needs, and addicts are getting the help they deserve. Treatment centers are opening that offer a free needle exchange as a way to combat the spreading of blood-pathogen diseases, and as a way to offer addicts a safe place to get high and receive treatment. Cities such as New York City and Seattle are doing their best to help curb addiction with these needle-exchange programs and offer onsite free mental health assistance. For once, drug addiction is being portrayed as a mental health issue instead of a “moral failing” on the part of the addict.
However — as refreshing as this shift in public opinion may be — it highlights the glaring racial mistreatment of people of color in the American “war on drugs.” Despite the adjustment from punishment to mental health treatment, little has changed for other drug addictions that plague Black, Hispanic, or Asian communities.
Even Trump — who has noted that the opioid epidemic is a national crisis — refuses to reign in his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Sessions wants to further criminalize and prosecute sellers of marijuana in states where medical marijuana is already legal. Sessions’ stance on marijuana reflects that of the Nixon era: crusading to further police communities that are already struggling. The war on drugs might see a resurgence under the Trump administration, but special favoritism will be given to communities that are predominantly white and suffering from prescription drug addictions.
Historical Racism in Drug Crimes
Extensive research into America’s history of drug convictions has proven that almost all crackdowns have been racially motivated.
Beginning in the 1930s, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, first denounced the use of marijuana. He found that public outcry over the rising Hispanic immigrant population could also fuel his own crusade against marijuana. This cascaded into a smear campaign that has lasted to this day. He compared the use of marijuana with criminality, addiction, and murder: all of which have since been proven to be false. He later helped Congress pass the first minimum sentencing laws against marijuana possession.
As one researcher, Martin Booth, who dove into this history found out: “It [marijuana] became a symbol of the foreigner, and was demonized as a way of suppressing ethnic minorities. Hence, […], 20th-century drug law in the US reflected white fears of non-white minorities, particularly the Chinese, African-Americans and Mexicans.”
Even across the pond, in Europe and the UK, marijuana use was criminalized due to its ties to Indian immigrants entering the area. “Indian hemp” or hashish was eventually made illegal by the International Opium Convention of 1925, hosted by the League of Nations. Since then, the majority of the world has followed suit and made the sale, cultivation, and possession of this drug illegal.
Since the 1930s and Anslinger’s campaign, drug criminalization in the USA has only increased. During the Nixon era, especially, it took a turn for the worst. As one Nixon cabinet member and Watergate co-conspirator, John Ehrlichman, stated to a Harper’s reporter in 1994:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
In the 80s, with the introduction of crack cocaine to inner city communities, a new era of the war on drugs began. With it came a series of “tough on crime” laws that introduced mandatory sentencing and the “Three Strikes Law” in the mid-1990s. However, until recent years, crack cocaine was criminalized more heavily (with longer sentences) than powder cocaine, despite having an identical chemical makeup. This showed the glaring disparity in the system, as many rich white men used or sold powder cocaine, but crack cocaine was most commonly found in poor African American communities.
Since the introduction of these “tough on crime” laws, prison populations have exploded. Predominantly, black men have found themselves behind bars for multiple, non-violent, drug-related offenses. Where was the concern for mental health treatment when drug addiction was plaguing their communities?
Luckily, sentencing reform (with a particular focus on drug-related laws) is beginning to get traction in the United States, but not quickly enough. Already, millions of black men have suffered from disenfranchisement after being released from prison, and most likely this demographic will continue to suffer under the Trump administration’s crackdown. Especially if Trump and Sessions have their way, much of the progress that has been made in the past 8 years under Obama could be rolled back. It already seems like the entire purpose of Trump’s presidency is to undo the last.
Modern Day Aid for Addiction
Opioid addiction has steadily risen over the years, with the majority of the blame being placed on pain killers such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, and fentanyl. These prescription medications, along with heroin, can be addictive and deadly when mixed with alcohol or taken excessively. Just within the last year, 64,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, over 10,000 more than 2015.
The opioid epidemic has affected every community and racial group within the United States. However, due to the increased prevalence it has within the average suburban neighborhood, suddenly those who suffer with an opioid addiction have more political clout. White suburbia is facing a drug problem, and politicians and local law enforcement officials are willing to step up and help, and potentially win their votes. Instead of placing addicts behind bars, they fund treatment centers, promote addiction counseling, and work to provide safe places for addicts to receive drugs under medical supervision.
Unfortunately, the racial double standard is hard to hide after years of over-criminalizing black men and women who possess marijuana or suffer from addiction from other drugs.
But what can be done to potentially reverse the work of over a century of biased laws and stereotypes? Racism surely hasn’t ended in 2017, and it won’t for some time. Under Trump, we may even be taking another five steps farther back from progress.
This isn’t meant to overshadow the steps that have been taken to help those in need. Recognizing addiction as a mental illness issue can have a major impact on public perception, potentially leading to a more empathetic future for everyone who suffers from addiction. Already, marijuana is being considered as a treatment option for opioid addicts, but is finding staunch rebuttal from A.G. Jeff Sessions and other Republican leaders. After all the years of portraying marijuana users as criminal people of color, it’s nearly impossible for our white supremacist national leaders to let go of this old image.
Until all racial groups are treated equally under the law, prisons will continue to be filled with people of color, and addiction treatment centers will remain a luxury for white, suburban America.