September 19, 2019 | 49° F

REYES: Response to opioid crisis reveals disparities

Opinions Column: Free as in Libre


Two weeks ago, President Donald J. Trump declared the current opioid crisis a public health emergency, a move to address this transmuted crisis that was highly anticipated by drug policy scholars. Although there are numerous problems associated with this statement, particularly how this directive does not free up any additional funds to deal with the crisis, what is lost in this conversation is how the narrative on drug use has suddenly become more compassionate and humane — now that its victims are, in large part, white.

The history of drug use, enforcement and treatment are tumultuous, and the epidemics that characterize it have much more in common than not. Throughout this history, the majority of drug users have been white, but when we talk about the war on drugs of the 1970s and 1980s and the present opioid crisis, very different images come to mind. Why has the response to various drug crises been so dissimilar?

When heroin use surged in the 1960s and 1970s, many Black and Latinx adolescents and young adults living in urban communities died of heroin-related incidents, more than any other etiology. Former President Richard Nixon responded not with compassion and expanded provisions of treatment for those suffering but with a full-scale 'War on Drugs.' While federal and state governments were unsuccessful in helping these individuals out of this cycle, they did succeed in escalating mass incarceration through draconian policies (for example, New York’s 1973 Rockefeller drug laws) like mandatory minimum sentencing even for first-time offenders.

In the 1980s, drug users turned to crack, a crystal form of cocaine, because it was much less expensive than regular cocaine and was perceived to be safer since it is smoked and not injected. While many Black and Latinx people were caught in the web of crack use, the majority of crack users were white, and several studies show that most drug users purchase their drugs from dealers within their own racial/ethnic group. But the perceived crack user is a person of color, and their drug use is met with harsher sentencing laws than cocaine (which is still predominantly used by wealthy, white people), like in 1992, for instance, when more than 90 percent of those sentenced under 80s crack laws were Black people.

When journalists, politicians and medical professionals acknowledged white people as crack users, it was usually in a sympathetic rhetoric — victims of stressful professional careers that should be met with compassion and not judgment or jail time. This mirrors how the victims of the present-day opioid crisis are considered. The fact that most opioid abusers are white is a major reason why Republican senators from states most affected by opioid-related deaths did not support the recent health care bill, which, in their view, underfunded treatment for opioid dependence.

There is also a major difference in how journalists and the media frame opioid-dependent children. The vile language used to describe “crack babies” has been replaced with a more humane style that captures the nuance and complexity of drug dependency and childbirth. Were babies suffering from crack cocaine withdrawal any less deserving of care and love, or is it that they were less deserving because they were Black? Because instead of being met with treatment for the babies and rehabilitation for their mothers, Black and Latinx communities faced severe law enforcement strategies due to the unfounded fears of the criminal youth of color, the so-called “super-predators” of our generation. This perception has ravaged Black and Latinx communities. To this day, these neighborhoods are under greatest threat of harassment, surveillance, incarceration and familial destruction due to the racialized enforcement of already racist policies.

What is revealing about the current opioid crisis is that, despite the general shift in how we portray those suffering from substance addiction, Trump signaled that the strategies he intends to support will not deviate from previous administrations. Last week, after Trump’s bipartisan opioid commission released its final report, he remarked that he wants a “Just Say No”-style of mass media campaign despite copious studies concluding its ineffectiveness in reducing substance use and addiction. Moreover, he endorsed the commission’s recommendation to expand drug courts, yet research shows us that drug courts are more costly than voluntary treatment and do not improve public safety nor health outcomes for people struggling with drug problems.

What this implores us to do is to highlight the racial disparities in how drug addiction is framed and pressure our lawmakers to not continue this destructive narrative and associated unjust policy strategies. We need to move towards a health equity approach that benefits all communities through the eradication of structural racism in our social, legal, political and health systems. Advocating for a holistic, equitable substance use policy can help us address all forms of drug use and end the draconian, punitive approaches that continue to plague our society.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, "Free as in Libre," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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Thalya Reyes

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