The criminalization of drugs in the 1980’s and 1990’s was a major factor that led to the mass incarceration problem we face today. However, certain drugs, and in one case the same drug in a different form, were more criminalized than others. Today we face the opioid epidemic, and the way we have discussed and handled opioid abuse highlights the stark difference between this epidemic and the crack cocaine epidemic of a few decades ago. Opioid abuse is seen as an issue plaguing White communities while crack cocaine was associated with Black users. When White communities are ravaged by drug abuse, politicians and the media speak with compassion and advocate for drug rehabilitation treatment, but when the face of a drug epidemic is Black, the response does not abound with compassion and understanding but rather disdain and rhetoric about the need for harsher prison sentences.
Politicians from across the ideological spectrum assert that the solution to the current opioid and heroin epidemics is medical treatment; however, politicians used to advocate for increased criminalization of drug use. The only difference between the current epidemic and those of the past is the type of drug used and skin color of the users. In fact, even when different races use the same drug, the response is different. Of course, there is the infamous sentencing discrepancy between powder cocaine and crack cocaine: powder cocaine was associated with upper class Whites while crack cocaine was associated with low-income Blacks. There is also the difference between our response to heroin use today and our response to heroin use in 1960s and 1970s. During the President Nixon’s years in office, heroin was a drug that was associated with low-income, inner city Black users. John Ehrlichman, former White House Domestic Affairs Advisor under President Nixon, recalled the administration’s political strategy in a 1994 interview:
We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.
Today, however, heroin is associated with White users, so the rhetoric surrounding heroin use is significantly more compassionate. Some legislators have proposed laws to make drugs that counter the effects of heroin more accessible. More specifically, in 2015 Rand Paul even introduced one such bill called the “Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act”. The solutions to our current drug abuse epidemics include words such as “recovery” and “addiction treatment” while the crack epidemic was handled with words such as “crack babies” and “super predators”. The rhetoric alone shows how we have changed.
To be clear, I fully support drug addiction treatment and despise policies that put drug users behind bars. However, it is very important that we recognize and take responsibility for how our opinions towards drug users have changed over time. Imagine if we helped people with addictions through accessible rehabilitation programs instead of sending them to prison. Prisons would not be overflowing and communities would not experience the cyclical devastation of parents in prison, children in broken homes, and those children growing up to go to prison. We must learn from this lesson and ask ourselves “In what other policy areas are our views skewed because of racial bias?” This is the only way we can make something good out of this disastrous mistake of our past.