The long-brewing American opioid abuse crisis has reached epidemic levels. 2014 saw 29,000 opioid related deaths, the highest on record. And in 2013, drug overdoses were the leading cause of death in the United States. This issue stems in part from increased societal dependence on prescription painkillers, which if unchecked, can lead to life threatening addictions, some of which spiral into heroin use.
As the New York Timesâ€™ Jennifer Steinhauer recently reported, â€śThe drug emergency has become increasingly pervasive, and in places rarely associated with issues like opioid addiction. An epidemic of abuse of prescription painkillers and heroin, often abused when the prescription drugs run out, has swept the United States, with overdose deaths quadrupling since the late 1990s.â€ť This has led to a panicked but arguably necessary response from the federal government, culminating in a recent Senate bill that enjoyed rare near-unanimous bipartisan support.
â€śThe [Senate] measure authorizes money for various treatment and prevention programs for a broad spectrum of addicts, including those in jail. It also strengthens prescription drug monitoring programs to help states and expands the availability of the drug naloxone, which helps reverse overdoses, to law enforcement agencies,â€ť wrote Steinhauer. And as she added, â€śIt also increases disposal sites for prescription medications that are often abused by teenagers and others.â€ť
President Obama has taken this issue up as well, with his work culminating in a policy proposal he presented to attendees of the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit this week in Atlanta. He noted that for too long, drug addiction has been treated like a law enforcement issue rather than a public health one, and proposed an additional $1.1 billion on top of what the Senate passed. The basic goal of Obamaâ€™s program is to fund state level projects aimed at expanding medical treatment for drug addiction.
As a national response to the glaring opioid crisis the nation faces finally takes shape, there are several questions. From my libertarian perspective, thereâ€™s always the question of whether the federal level is the best place to address these matters. In a utopian world, the answer is no, this shouldnâ€™t be up to the Feds. But as far as steps in the right direction go, Iâ€™m happy to see a shift from the longstanding War on Drugs mentality to one that looks at drug use as medical rather than legal. Insofar as there are resources to be allocated federally, Iâ€™ll take the option that doesnâ€™t end in prison for nonviolent offenders.
Itâ€™s important to note however that for many communities this attitude shift, while representative of policy progress, is bittersweet. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who voted for the aforementioned Senate bill, has long noted that the War on Drugs has a disproportionate impact on communities of color; a point that garnered him attention from constituencies not generally associated with the Republican Party. Itâ€™s an issue heâ€™s long promote in the Senate, and was something he focused on in his presidential campaign as well.
As Sen. Paul told CNN nearly two years ago, â€śThree out of four people in prison are black or brown for nonviolent drug use. However, when you do surveys, white kids are doing drugs at an equal rate, and they are a much bigger part of the population. So, why are the prisons full of black and brown kids? It is easier to arrest them. It is easier to convict them. They don’t get as good of attorneys. And, frankly, they live in the city in a much more collected fashion than in the suburbs, and so the police are patrolling the city more. But it is unfair. The War on Drugs has had a racial outcome, unintentionally, but it has a racial outcome. And I want to try to fix it.â€ť
And itâ€™s exactly the racial outcome Sen. Paul rightly described that now has many communities of color feeling perhaps newfound sympathy in response to the opioid problem, while good, should have been extended to the black community when they were castigated as thugs for the late 20th century crack epidemic.
In the wake of President Obamaâ€™s recent proposal, PBS interviewed Ekow Yankah, a professor at New Yorkâ€™s Cardozo School of Law. He made several interesting points. As he noted, â€śThirty years ago, America was facing a similar wave of addiction, death and crime, and the response could not have been more different. Television brought us endless images of thin, black, ravaged bodies, always with desperate, dried lips. We learned the words crack baby.â€ť
â€śBack then, when addiction was a black problem, there was no wave of national compassion,â€ť he added. â€śInstead, we were warned of super predators, young, faceless black men wearing bandannas and sagging jeans. African-Americans were cast as pathological. Their plight was evidence of collective moral failure, of welfare mothers and rock-slinging thugs and a reason to cut off all help. Blacks would just have to pull themselves out of the crack epidemic. Until then, the only answer lay in cordoning off the wreckage with militarized policing.â€ť
This certainly does invoke an image of a racially biased understanding, rife with evidence of how people in power are able to compartmentalize issues such as these â€“ until the tragedy starts affecting their own communities â€“ or even families. As Yankah added, â€śToday, police chiefs facing heroin addiction are responding not by invoking war, but by trying to save lives and get people into rehab. Suddenly, crime is understood as a sign of underlying addiction, rather than a scourge to be eradicated.â€ť
While the racial biases are unsettling and should, as Sen. Paul and others have noted, be addressed on a systemic level, itâ€™s good to see that at the very least, public policy is moving in the right direction. While it apparently took white people dying at the hands of opioid addiction to create a shift in attitude, the shift is positive. But it shows that so much more needs to be done on a cultural level to prove that addiction isnâ€™t a moral failing present only in communities of color; itâ€™s something that impacts all Americans. We can only hope that from here on out, the lesson has been learned on a broad enough basis that demilitarization around drug use will happen inÂ allÂ communities. The time to end the failed War on Drugs has long passed.
Photo by orcearo/Getty Images
Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.
Click through the gallery below to read more from Corie.
LibertyThe fight for liberty will always transcend presidential politics.
Photo by rypson/Getty Images
Tea PartyThe tea party is not Trump and not dead, it's just different now.
Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images
Gun ControlThe gun control debate reveals the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives.
Photo by STILLFX/Getty Images
LibertyThis Presidential cycle is a reminder that anti-establishment doesn't mean pro-liberty.
Photo by Michael Flippo/Getty Images
RefugeesLet's get past the refugee rhetoric and look at the facts.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Election 2016The latest Republican debate marked the end of the Bush dynasty.
Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Presidential ElectionIs Marco Rubio ready for his moment? He very well could become the GOP nominee.
Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Debate LessonsDid we actually learn anything from the recent long, chaotic Republican debate?
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Identity PoliticsStop expecting conservatives to give up their identities.
Photo by BananaStock/Getty Images
Local PoliticsCorie Whalen-Stephens explore why to win nationally, we need to first act locally.
Photo by LuminaStock / Getty Images
Foreign PolicyA generational gap in foreign policy opinions could spell bad news for Republicans.
Criminal Justice ReformCorie Whalen Stephens discusses how President Obama is finally catching up with libertarians on criminal justice reform.
Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images
Election 2016Can a Republican Presidential candidate earn the Black vote?
Donald TrumpDefending Donald Trump is a contribution to the Democratic party.
Photo by Christopher Gregory/Getty Images
Rand Paul on MarriageSenator Rand Paul, who is known as the most libertarian Republican presidential candidate, believes the government should respect contracts between consenting adults, but stop defining marriage.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
LibertariansRead Corie Whalen Stephens' first article on EveryJoe -- Libertarians Can Stop Worrying and Embrace Rand Paulâ€™s Strategy.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images