United States / Opioid Epidemic

Race and Inconsistent Drug Policies

This piece, which will focus on the dynamic of race in drug systems, is the second of three articles dedicated to the social and political aspects of the opioid epidemic. Many politicians and officials have proclaimed that opioid drug addiction is “non-discriminatory,” in that it affects people of all demographics. But before the epidemic became an “epidemic,” opioid users were predominantly people of color, typically living in highly segregated urban areas. At this time, little effort was made by legislatures to solve the crisis because it seemed to be isolated in small populations. It was not until opioid addiction began affecting the lives of suburban whites that the problem became an important policy priority.

Rapidly, “empathy” and “recovery” have become the new buzzwords for politicians and law enforcement officers. One officer told the New York Times, “the way I look at addiction now is completely different. I can’t tell you what changed inside of me, but these are people and they have a purpose in life.” To be blunt, the “change” inside of him, like in many other officials, was most likely precipitated by the shift in those affected; in American, white people now make up ninety percent of opioid users and overdose at a rate twice that of black people and three and a half times that of Latino people. According to the CDC, the rate of heroin use among non-white adults has remained the same, but the rate among white adults has increased 114 percent. Clearly, this problem has become an “epidemic” partly because it has become a white problem.

In 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed eighteen opioid related bills during one week in May. That February, President Obama pushed for national opioid awareness and an additional $1.1 billion in government spending. A month later, the President met with hip-hop star Macklemore to discuss the artist’s new MTV documentary about the epidemic. In the interview, President Obama told Macklemore, “the good news is that awareness is starting to rise. And, I’ll be honest with you, part of what’s starting to change is that the opioid crisis is getting into communities that are suburban, that are relatively well-to-do, rural communities, white communities, and people’s kids who are being affected are folks who have a voice.” President Obama clearly understands how the problem evolved and now seems to express the same frustration many Americans of color have towards the sudden change of heart in legislature.

This frustration not only stems from the parallel relationship between race and politics, but also from the singular treatment of opioid addiction. This epidemic is presented as being about prescription opioids and heroin, but what about drugs like fentanyl, PCP, and cocaine?

As shown on the White House’s website, the rise in opioid deaths throughout the 2000s is closely related to non-pharmaceutical fentanyl, yet these statistics have been reduced to the fine print while prescription opioids and heroin take center stage. Specifically, between 2005 and 2006, there is a clear spike in opioid-related deaths and non-prescription fentanyl, as seen in the note in the whitehouse.gov graph. Furthermore, forty-four percent of people who died from non-pharmaceutical fentanyl-related overdoses in these years were black or Latino.

PCP and cocaine are also drugs used predominantly by Americans of color. Between 2005 and 2011, PCP-related emergency department visits increased by more than four hundred percent, over seventy-five thousand visits annually. Cocaine was involved in over five hundred thousand emergency department visits in 2011. These alarming numbers are escalating further, but new policies continuously focus strictly on heroin and prescription opioids. Based on this evidence, it seems as though the drugs with high populations of white users are the drugs that receive the most focus and funding. In order to aid all of America’s population, the government needs to fund a culture of treatment and prevention for all types of addiction, rather than just prescription opioids and heroin.

It is also important to consider that the U.S. still holds thousands of people of color under correctional control for drug offenses. The government is expanding new drug policies while failing to repair historically unfair drug-related incarceration rates.

Most political scientists believe we arrived at this point thanks to the “War on Drugs.” During desperate policy implementation, “tough on crime” laws prioritized punishment over rehabilitation. Unintentionally or not, lawmakers targeted poor communities of color as the main sources of the epidemic. The prioritization of punishment over rehabilitation in communities of color led to the mass incarceration of black and Latino citizens. As of 2010, eighty-five percent of prisoners in the U.S. were in prison for crimes involving substance abuse, and seventy percent of inmates in the U.S. at the time were people of color. This number is clearly unfair, since 2014 statistics show that sixty-five percent of illicit drug users were white. Logically, sixty-five percent of prisoners incarcerated for crimes involving substance abuse would be white and thirty-five percent would be non-white.

The statistics are public and the government seems to be aware, so why, then, is this distribution still so skewed? The money will go where those in power are, and those in power are white. Policy makers will fail to fix mass incarceration because of the small population of white citizens in jail for drug-related offenses, and they will continue to singularly focus their efforts on the prescription opioid epidemic because the mass population of prescription drug users are white. To end this racial discrimination, we must continue discussing the intersectionality between politics and race. Finally, we must ensure that our leaders understand both the causes and consequences of their inconsistent drug policies.