A heroin addict prepares to shoot drugs intravenously in St. Johnsbury, Vt., Feb. 6, 2014. Heroin and other opiates have begun to devastate many white communities in the Northeast and Midwest, leading to a surge in fatal overdoses in a number of states.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The New York Times recently published an article titled, “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs.”

In the piece, middle-class white families, mostly from suburbs and small towns, detail their traumatic experiences with heroin addiction, also known as “smack.” One white New Hampshire man interviewed for the piece talks about how he viewed people battling addiction as “junkies” until he recognized their faces in his own high-achieving, privileged daughter.

Here are some revealing numbers from the piece:

* Deaths from heroin rose to 8,260 in 2013, quadrupling since 2000 and aggravating what some were already calling the worst drug-overdose epidemic in United States history.

* Nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.


No wonder “compassion” is the word of the day.

The article includes the personal and political positions of GOP presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, all of whom have expressed that there is a need to decriminalize addiction. This is a glaring departure from the policies of the party of Ronald Reagan. It was through his backroom dealings with Nicaragua’s Contras that the war on drugs (pdf) intensified as crack cocaine and guns flooded inner cities, laying the groundwork for mass incarceration that has ravaged black communities. Yet here are his political descendants struggling to frame addiction as the health issue it has always been without making the GOP look like the party of hypocrites that it has always been.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also has had to step into the breach in an attempt to sanitize the insidious racism that shades her husband’s legacy at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Former President Bill Clinton was complicit in the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which included the “Three Strikes Law,” thus expanding the war on drugs. He has since acknowledged and apologized for his role in the devastation that the bill caused for black families, but it’s much too little, much too late.


For over three decades, racist, drug-sentencing disparities have been stark. According to the NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet and the Sentencing Project:

* About 14 million whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug.

* Five times as many whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites.


* African Americans represent 12 percent of the total population of drug users, but 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59 percent of those in state prison for a drug offense.

* African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months), according to the Sentencing Project.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 may have reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, but the stigma attached to crack has not been shed under this “gentler” approach to tackling addiction. It clings to the societal-inflicted stigmas of poverty and mental illness; it clings to the dehumanizing lens through which this nation views black Americans.


Case in point: According to the New York Times, “32 states have passed ‘good Samaritan’ laws that protect people from prosecution, at least for low-level offenses, if they call 911 to report an overdose.” This is thanks, in large part, to the tireless efforts of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Eric Adams, a white former undercover narcotics detective, now sees the humanity in those battling drug addiction. His job now is not to set up stings that entrap people of color; it is to seek people battling addiction and help them get into treatment.

“The way I look at addiction now is completely different,” Adams said. “I can’t tell you what changed inside of me, but these are people, and they have a purpose in life, and we can’t as law enforcement look at them any other way. They are committing crimes to feed their addiction, plain and simple. They need help.”


I think we can all figure out what changed.

Did black people addicted to crack cocaine not need help? Do their lives not have purpose? Are there not underlying reasons for crime in black communities that don’t hinge on the pathologizing of black people as innately more criminal than their white counterparts?

It is a grave insult for Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, to condescendingly suggest in the Times piece that the sole difference between the treatment of heroin users and crack cocaine users lies in the political acumen and savvy organizational skills of white people who understand how to petition government for change. As if black activists and families have not been passionately fighting back against racist drug policies for decades.


This suggestion that if only we had enough intelligence, if only we had made enough noise, then African-American communities would have been treated more gently by police officers when they came through the hood stopping and frisking for drugs is disingenuous and dangerous.

What that says is that if only black Americans understood the complexity of bureaucracy, perhaps Tarika Wilson would not have been killed when a Lima, Ohio, SWAT team raided her home to arrest her boyfriend on drug charges, and perhaps her 14-month-old son would not have been shot as she held him in her arms.

If only we had organized enough, perhaps 18-year-old Ramarley Graham would not have been gunned down by Police Officer Richard Haste inside his grandmother’s home as he attempted to flush a bag of marijuana down the toilet.


If only we had cared enough, perhaps 1 in 12 black men ages 25-54 would not be behind bars, compared with 1 in 60 nonblack men in the same age group, or perhaps 1 in 200 black women would not be behind bars, compared with 1 in 500 nonblack women in that same age group, many on low-level drug charges.

If we were only “empowered,” perhaps former Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw would not be on trial for the sexual assault and rape of 12 black women and one underage black girl—some in possession of drugs or facing nonviolent drug charges—because he knew that they knew that the system would not be “gentle” with them if he hauled them off to jail instead.

Or, perhaps, we should accurately define the war on drugs as a “War on the Most Vulnerable Communities in Black America.”


Though Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign is a thing of the past, while our government is finding ways to be “gentle” with white heroin addicts, it is still just saying no to black people in this country.

“Just say no” to dismantling a racist system that funneled drugs and guns into black communities with limited access to education and employment.

“Just say no” to food and health benefits for affected families who are trapped in cycles of poverty and violence.

“Just say no” to then treating the inevitable rise in addiction as a health issue.


“Just say no” to decriminalizing black, low-level drug offenders and reinstating their basic rights to citizenship after their inevitable incarceration.

Drug addiction is absolutely a dire health issue across the United States, and regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, it needs to be decriminalized. But what we are witnessing is the protection of white Americans while black Americans continue to be penalized.

Police officers and politicians are simply making it clear that the war on drugs was never supposed to include white America. It is racist, systemic, purposeful violence in the truest sense of the word, and there is nothing gentle about that.