How to Transform the War on Drugs into Providing Drug Treatment and Compassion

Filed in National by on June 3, 2014

Make the faces of drug use and abuse white ones. Interesting, yes? Most black and brown people have known this since forever. Last week, the WaPo published two authors who note that with the reports of the explosion of heroin use and abuse in the suburbs, that the news reporting as well as law enforcement sound much more compassionate, but that seems to be because they are now talking about white people:

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.

The War on Drugs was always a mistake and always doomed to failure. People struggling with drugs ALWAYS needed treatment options, not just jail. Of course, those who are committing crimes other than just possession (like breaking into cars and houses) should get some jail time. But abusing and possessing should be a health problem, not a justice system problem:

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.

Interesting, right? I’ve certainly noticed that as heroin in the suburbs becomes a bigger problem, you never hear the usual avenues of blame directed a black and brown families directed to these middle-class white families. No problems with white “culture” or lack of parenting capability or single mothers or whatever else white folks like to rationalize the need for the War on Drugs. Once the drug problem hits the kids their kids go to school with, compassion is more the order of the day — making the case for a more compassionate approach that includes treatment and care that all of that potential isn’t just thrown away.

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.”

Yeah. Well. We already know that we live in a country where some lives are worth more than others and the War on Drugs is one of the most racist policies ever enacted. Drug abuse is a real problem all over the US. I’ve already mentioned how Oxy, meth and heroin is a massive problem in a very white rural community in Minnesota where one of my best friends lives. You rarely hear the contempt for their own having issues with drugs that they will freely express for drug issues in the Big City. Yet drug abuse doesn’t know from your race — it just needs some compassion to help these folks manage this issue. Pathways to treatment — not pathways to jail (at least for those not involved with other criminal incidents). For EVERYBODY, not just the white ones.


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"You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas." -Shirley Chisholm

Comments (14)

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  1. AQC says:

    I’ve been saying this for the many years I’ve been working with teenage substance abusers! The white kids get sent to treatment and the black kids get sent to Ferris! The system is racist and classist.

  2. puck says:

    Of course, those who are committing crimes other than just possession (like breaking into cars and houses) should get some jail time.

    This is a crucial distinction. With all the commentary about racial disparity in prison, I wonder if there are reliable stats for people jailed solely for possession of small amounts, uncomplicated by other crimes.

    Matt Denn wants more statistics:

    Denn doubts claims that many Delawareans are sitting in jail for petty marijuana possession, saying he wants to see “hard statistics” on the number of people incarcerated. “I am told by current prosecutors that there few, if any, Delawareans in jail solely for possessing marijuana in the quantities described in the bill,” he said.

    The 70s era stereotype is that black/brown people had to steal or rob to get the next fix, whereas whites had resources to pay for it “honestly.” I can’t say how realistic that ever was, but as a white 70s kid that was the attitude.

    I did personally witness the dawn of the crack era in NYC. The Studio 54 era of powdered cocaine was dying of its own absurdity and heavier law enforcement efforts, and then crack was invented. Crack did for cocaine what factory-rolled cigarettes did for tobacco – it made it convenient, affordable, and more addictive. People were getting mugged or killed for $3, because that is all the crackhead needed to get the next high. But the most notorious crime to tinance crack was car thefts. The joke was that BMW stands for “Break My Window.” There was a thriving industry for replacement glass and hot car stereos.

    I was personally mugged twice. Once for my wallet, and once for the bike I was riding. Both times were by young black men, although those are just my data points based on where I was llving at the time so I am not drawing any conclusions from that. I did know people who were experimenting with crack, and all of them were white.

    Nowadays I don’t think privileged whites have any love lost for meth addicts of any color. Heroin is its own story with centuries of history and changing attitudes.

  3. Joanne Christian says:

    It’s just kinda hard to legalize marijuana (and I’m not talking decriminalization), and then wonder why all the heroin use and the need for treatment in the same blog. I FIRMLY believe in rehab/treatment over conviction–but like I’ve written earlier, w/ relatives in Colorado having school age children, the heroin use is off the charts now that marijuana is essentially a bubblegum drug to the high school kids. Just a thought. Oh, and they are losing business potential because of the unchartered workplace, employment rules and regs that can go with that. Hesitancy all around.

    And as far as the meth goes–hey it’s the prairie white folks who are responsible for me being ID’s for my lousy pseudophed for the winter sniffle. Living in the country provided great lab space. Son witnessed, two trailers blow up in Kingman, Arizona from meth (one as he drove by). Nobody really lives in Kingman, but provides lots of open space………Now poppy fields—that may be a tell-tale sign….

  4. liberalgeek says:

    If you believe that marijuana is a gateway drug to heroin, I can see your point. I don’t necessarily believe that to be the case (although I haven’t used either). But FWIW, I support treatment options for people addicted to lots of things (alcohol, marijuana, heroin, gambling, etc.) yet I am strongly opposed to the 18th Amendment and think that gambling is fine as long as I don’t have to do it.

  5. puck says:

    If you believe that marijuana is a gateway drug to heroin

    I didn’t mean to imply that. I meant that the kind of statistics Matt Denn is asking for on uncomplicated possession of marijuana, would be useful to have for other drugs as well. Do people abhor the drugs, or do they abhor the other crime that comes with it? As a generalization I don’t think privileged whites care much if the underclass lies around like lotus-eaters as long as they aren’t a threat to persons or property. I agree that treatment should be available to anyone, certainly as a first resort before jail, for humanitarian reasons as well as social policy.

  6. cassandra_m says:

    Marijuana is a gateway drug to heroin (or anything else) because the people who illegally sell marijuana often have other drugs that they are pushing. The real gateway drug to heroin these days is oxycodone — which is getting scarcer and heroin is apparently an acceptable substitute.

  7. Joanne Christian says:

    I don’t know puck–in the underbelly life, that I’ve career wise have woven in and out of–I usually saw the drug charge more subordinate, and a “reason to hold”, than the bigger crime law enforcement had on someone, but yet ducks weren’t in a row for that larger crime paperwork. I can’t even think of a stand alone drug charge, unless it was humongous w/ bricks, and kilos, scales, and tons of cash. But yes, held–“with a pipe and a baggie”–went away, pled down, probation, something–than a stand alone charge. Unless the Feds were involved, then maybe a whole new life. But I’m not on the judicial end, so maybe there is this “Cousin Earl went up the river for 3 joints” population, that does need to be accounted and not rumor, folklore, or propaganda.

  8. Joanne Christian says:

    And heroin is cheaper cass, and heroin doesn’t have the other other hassles of criminality to go with it–e.g. prescription fraud, transfer of controlled substance illegally charges, holding up a pharmacy, breaking and entering, home invasions, etc……..Gee, such an opportune alternative. Oh and Delaware has the free needle exchange program too!!!!

    Where are we heading??? Yikes…..get the treatment beds.

  9. cassandra_m says:

    I don’t know about how cheap heroin is, but do know that addiction behavior is addiction behavior. Desperate acts by someone whose entire existence is pointed at trying to feed an addiction aren’t usually subject to a detailed risk analysis of the consequences of said desperation. It is why they call it Addiction Behavior.

  10. puck says:

    addiction behavior is addiction behavior

    There is some truth to that, but to some extent is is recoveryspeak which has entered the popular mindset.There are also distinctions among drugs, both in the nature of the addiction and in the cultures that have come to characterize them.

  11. Geezer says:

    How many people smoke marijuana before they smoke a cigarette or drink a beer?

    If marijuana is a gateway to heroin, it’s doing a lousy job. American has about 8 million people who use pot daily (2012) vs. fewer than 700,000 on heroin. That 10% rate has held mostly steady since the ’70s, and it doesn’t even include the number of people who smoke pot less than daily (there aren’t very many heroin addicts who don’t use it daily).

  12. AQC says:

    I think the whole “gateway” concept is mischaracterized. It’s a gateway mentally, not in terms of physical addiction. When kids are little they typically believe they are never going to use any drugs ever. Once they compromise this principle for either marijuana or alcohol, it becomes easier to justify the next compromises, and the next, etc. Geezer, with over 22 years of working with kids, I’d say half the kids that smoke marijuana never use cigarettes or alcohol.

  13. fightingbluehen says:

    The “gateway” is when a drug dealer says, “I don’t have any marijuana today , but hey, try this.”

    Take the drug dealers out of the equation, and the gateway will be significantly reduced.

  14. Dorian Gray says:

    Look I think that 95% of the commenters and bloggers here are affluent white people. We’re going to smoke as much as we want wherever we want with near absolute impunity… So if you don’t agree with decriminalisation and legalisation what does that say about where we are?