Race and the Opioid Epidemic

Defective Drugs
Opioid Epidemic

By Sean Lally, Staff Writer

More attention has been given to the opioid epidemic recently as the crisis seems to be getting worse. In 2015, over 33,000 people died of opioid drug overdoses; that’s about two-thirds of all drug-related deaths and the highest number to date. Since 2000, opioid overdoses have quadrupled. The increased usage of prescription opiate pain relievers (OPRs) – caused in part by the aggressive marketing campaigns of Big Pharma companies like Purdue – has caused a corollary increase in heroin drug overdoses, as people who are addicted to opiate pain killers are 40 times more likely to get addicted to heroin. Consequently, the opioid crisis has been called the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history. But how do we account for the differences between this drug epidemic and crack-cocaine crisis of the 1980s?

The Punitive Response to the Crack Epidemic

Race has played a significant role in the varied responses to past drug crises. The current opioid situation highlights the differences between society’s response to a drug epidemic associated with African-Americans and the response to a drug epidemic that affects primarily white people. Reagan’s intensification of Nixon’s War on Drugs resulted in a mandatory minimum sentencing policy that incarcerated black drug users at much higher rates than their white counterparts. Today, thanks to the racially motivated war on drugs, African Americans account for 34 percent of crack users, but make up 80 percent of people in federal prisons for crack possession. This is partly because crack-related offenses result in a much harsher punishment than incidents involving powder-cocaine, even though there is no real scientific evidence to show a substantial difference between the two.

The Fundamental Importance of Narratives

So far, in the effort to address the opioid epidemic, we haven’t seen overarching narratives that demonize drug abusers such as with the war on drugs. Instead, we have seen narratives that are sympathetic to the problem of addiction and that view addiction as affliction – not as a manifestation of some inherent criminality. White politicians and business leaders like Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina recount stories of white friends or relatives who succumbed to addiction and paid the fatal price.

Mainstream media outlets have played their role as well. In 1987, at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic, the New York Times reported on crack and its relationship to increased crime rates, pushing the narrative that crack-cocaine is a violent drug used by violent (mostly black) people, a myth that has been debunked in recent years. In contradistinction to these narratives, the New York Times recently wrote a series of sympathetic stories about (white) people who have suffered from opioid addiction. The racialization of mainstream media narratives may be due in part to the underrepresentation of non-white journalists in the newsroom, as suggested by a survey conducted by American Society of News Editors’.

Addiction as a Public Health Issue

So what happens when a drug crisis affects primarily white people? Last year, Congress passed a law to increase access to addiction treatment, expand awareness and expand preventative measures. In New Jersey, Chris Christie and state legislators enacted a law limiting initial opioid prescriptions to five days and requiring state-regulated health insurers to cover inpatient and outpatient treatment for drug addiction. Nine other states have passed laws that include provisions limiting the prescription of opioids to 10 days (or less) and changing mental health statuses to include addiction. All in all, the federal government and several state governments are approaching the problem as a public health issue and not as a criminal justice issue.

And to those who think that incarceration is a valid response to the violence that emerges out of the illicit drug market (turf wars etc.), it’s important to note that incarceration actually tends to lead to a drop in drug prices which in turn results in an increased flow of drugs onto the market. Additionally, incarceration has not reduced recidivism. Thus, whether we’re talking about addicts or drug dealers, we should be wary of supporting punitive measures, as these have not achieved their reputed aims.

In sum, the point is that we should remain attentive to the role that race plays in political and ideological reactions to any drug epidemic. 

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