Much has been said of the government responses to the opioid epidemic—specifically that it is leniently and sympathetically called an epidemic (I agree with that assessment), with sights set on healing and treatment. While necessary to combat the issue, the sympathy with which our nation views the current drug scourge is, frankly, frustrating. Why frustrating?
Because 30 years ago, when crack was the order of the day, there was no talk about treating addicts. The country didn’t seem to give one fuck. No, the only way of addressing the problem was to throw folks away and impose mandatory minimums. Get the drug dealers and users off the street and perhaps you get rid of the drugs.
This is America. From the Wall Street Journal:
In the 1980s, Congress passed a series of laws that aimed to counter the widespread use of crack cocaine with tougher sentencing guidelines.
Three decades later, lawmakers are once again considering legislation aimed at curbing a drug crisis: opioid abuse. This time, the emphasis is on funding research into a public-health crisis and enabling states to deal with its consequences.
I wonder why that is. More from the Wall Street Journal:
In 2016, white victims made up almost 80% of the deaths from opioid overdoses, with black victims comprising 10% of deaths and Hispanic victims 8%, according to the nonprofit Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. In contrast, in 2000, 84% of crack cocaine offenders were black, compared with 6% white, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan, independent agency created by Congress to reduce sentencing disparities.
Recent studies have suggested that cocaine remains a proportionate problem among black users, as opioids is among white users. Cocaine-related overdose deaths among black men and women were on par with heroin and prescription opioid-related deaths among white men and women between 2000 and 2015, according to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Research has shown that minorities are now more likely to be in prison and to serve longer sentences than white offenders for comparable crimes. Many lawmakers say it is time for the sentencing guidelines established during the crack epidemic to be further revised.
So let me get this right: Opioid abuse is largely a white problem, so we treat it, and crack is largely a black problem, so we jail it. Obviously, I’m saying nothing new to any black person in America. The fight over mandatory minimums, especially for nonviolent offenses, has raged for many years. There are several papers (pdf) and studies done on racial disparities in sentencing. Nothing new to see here.
Lawmakers often talk about how it’s time to take a new look at sentencing guidelines, though the rules rarely change. Black communities (and Hispanic communities) have been decimated by what constitutes a slap on the wrist for white criminals.
But you already know that.
And it’s frustrating as fuck. It’s especially frustrating because nobody in a position of authority wants to plainly state what is so obvious to anybody with half a brain: White America cares about ending the opioid crisis because it affects white people. It’s plain as day.
There are New York Times profiles of the children of opioid addicts that make passing mention of the disparity in addressing drug users over time. There are prominent medical organizations talking about ways to end the problem and how we can treat people. If you’re on crack, though, there are lots of articles that will tell you how to personally stop smoking it!
And it’s not just a function of changing times. Attitudes toward drugs may be changing, but attitudes about certain drugs and the sellers and users of said drugs persist. A black drug dealer or user of heroin or PCP is viewed as a detriment to society. A white opioid addict is viewed as a cause worth saving. The stories are heartbreaking. But they always have been. It’s not sad just because white folks are dying. It’s sad when anybody is struggling with addiction and looking for a way out.
But you already know that.
And let me be very clear: I want the opioid crisis to end. I want addicts to manage to find a way to get and stay clean. And I don’t want jails loaded up with folks who already have one problem going somewhere where they’ll gain a slew of new issues. I just wish America felt that way about problems facing black communities while not expecting any compassion from whiteness at large.
To institutions of America, blackness is still largely seen as a pathology. Being black means there’s a correction that needs to take place. And America corrects punitively with institutionalization. Meanwhile, in white America, funding streams and preventive measures are open and ready to be used. Let’s attack the problem with love and healing!
And that shit is frustrating. When responses and methods are so blatantly racist, it’s disgusting to have people attempt to rationalize why the lives of one group seem to be worth saving in a way that others’ are not. This isn’t even personal; it’s a fucking government issue. The government is actively engaging in racism by addressing the same fucking problem—drug use—differently because of who it’s impacting.
But you already know that.
Middle America, now it’s a tragedy. Now it’s so sad to see. I wish the powers that be who can address the issues (the lawmakers, who want to fund treatment facilities and use policy to stop the means with which the opioids reach the street) had to look us in our faces and acknowledge that mandatory minimums aren’t fixing shit (data and research) while they struggle internally with their morals when it comes time to take action on sentencing guidelines because ... drugs bad.
But that’s not who this country is. This country is focused on saving those who have value to the people in power.
This is America.
But ... you already know that.