When heroin hit the suburbs . . .

Pogo 3The Washington Post published an opinion piece on media coverage of the current opiate epidemic. Two things lept out to the writers:

Last month, NBC News ran a series of stories about the United States’ “growing heroin epidemic.” Two things stand out in the reports: One is their sympathetic tone; the other is that almost everyone depicted is white.

Drug users and their families aren’t vilified; there is no panicked call for police enforcement. Instead, and appropriately, there is a call for treatment and rehabilitation. Parents of drug addicts express love for their children, and everyone agrees they need support to get clean.
. . .

Clearly, new attention to heroin use in white, affluent areas is changing the perceptions and politics of drug addiction. No longer are the addicts “desperate and hardened.” Apparently, heroin use isn’t the result of bad parenting, the rise of single-parent families or something sick or deviant in white culture. It isn’t an incurable plague that is impossible to treat except with jail time. Drug addicts no longer are predatory monsters.

In short, the root problem is not the degeneracy of a group of Americans.

They lament the policies that these historical attitudes had spawned.

You can’t help but wonder how the story of a black teacher in an inner-city school shooting drugs in the school bathroom would be characterized. Or how the heroin addiction of a single black mother with two sons would be depicted on the nightly news.

Actually, we don’t have to wonder: We know exactly how drug use has been depicted and responded to when it was perceived chiefly as a problem in communities of color. The 1973 Rockefeller drug laws in New York mandated a minimum sentence of 15 years to life in jail for selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of heroin. The federal government followed suit in the 1980s with mandatory minimum sentencing as part of its “war on drugs.”

All of this reminded me of themes Bill White has identified in chemical prohibition.

  1. The drug is associated with a hated subgroup of the society or a foreign enemy.
  2. The drug is identified as solely responsible for many problems in the culture, i.e., crime, violence, and insanity.
  3. The survival of the culture is pictured as being dependent on the prohibition of the drug.
  4. The concept of “controlled” usage is destroyed and replaced by a “domino theory” of chemical progression.
  5. The drug is associated with the corruption of young children, particularly their sexual corruption.
  6. Both the user and supplier of the drug are defined as fiends, always in search of new victims; usage of the drug is considered “contagious.”
  7. Policy options are presented as total prohibition or total access.
  8. Anyone questioning any of the above assumptions is bitterly attacked and characterized as part of the problem that needs to be eliminated.

This was a great opinion piece with an important message at the right time. It emphasizes the racial elements in these policy decisions, the harm of mass incarceration that resulted from these policies and the positive influence of compassion and empathy in policy.

However, I’m always a little disappointed that so many of these pieces just focus on rolling back our mistakes. Of course, that’s important. But, it wasn’t just racism and stupidity that got us here. So, rolling back our mistakes is important, but what are the right policies to address these problems without creating a whole new set of unacceptable problems?