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 Times’ Jennifer Steinhauer recently reported, “The 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.” 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.
“The [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,” wrote Steinhauer. And as she added, “It also increases disposal sites for prescription medications that are often abused by teenagers and others.”
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 Obama’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, there’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 shouldn’t be up to the Feds. But as far as steps in the right direction go, I’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, I’ll take the option that doesn’t end in prison for nonviolent offenders.
It’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. It’s an issue he’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, “Three 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.”
And it’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 Obama’s recent proposal, PBS interviewed Ekow Yankah, a professor at New York’s Cardozo School of Law. He made several interesting points. As he noted, “Thirty 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.”
“Back then, when addiction was a black problem, there was no wave of national compassion,” he added. “Instead, 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.”
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 – until the tragedy starts affecting their own communities – or even families. As Yankah added, “Today, 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.”
While the racial biases are unsettling and should, as Sen. Paul and others have noted, be addressed on a systemic level, it’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 isn’t a moral failing present only in communities of color; it’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 in all communities. The time to end the failed War on Drugs has long passed.
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Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.
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