Will Politicians and Police Treat Black Opioid Users with Compassion?

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Fentanyl Citrate, a Class II Controlled Substance as classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the secure area of a local hospital Friday, July10, 2009. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Since Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines last year, he’s faced a worldwide backlash for his deadly approach to the drug epidemic in his country. Under his control, the authorities have killed thousands of drug offenders, among them the opioid addicts that are overdosing with frightening frequency in the United States.

In September, Duterte boasted that he’d like to kill many more addicts.

“Hitler massacred three million Jews,” Duterte told a group of journalists then. “Now, there are three million drug addicts. … I’d be happy to slaughter them.” (Actually, about six million Jews died during the Holocaust.)

Police and others have killed approximately 6,000 drug offenders in the Philippines since last July, according to the U.S. State Department. Westerners have been so horrified by Duterte’s massacre of drug offenders that Donald Trump was widely criticized for congratulating his Filipino counterpart in April “on the unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

Trump may be a Duterte fan, but as the opioid epidemic in the United States causes overdose deaths to soar, politicians on both sides of the aisle have responded with compassion. Remarkably, police officers have as well. But as Blacks begin to die from opioid abuse, African-Americans wonder if they too will be treated as victims rather than criminals. After all, during the crack epidemic’s peak years in the 1980s and ‘90s, America’s war on drugs had far more in common with Duterte’s approach than it did with the message of compassion politicians and police officers are singing today.

Of course, the U.S. government didn’t outright declare open season on drug offenders as Duterte has. But rigid anti-drug laws, including uneven sentencing guidelines for crack vs. cocaine, robbed untold numbers of Blacks of their lives during this time. More than 80 percent of federal crack cocaine convictions involved African-Americans and men, women and children all died during the drug war that spanned the Reagan years through the Clinton years in the White House.  

John Singleton’s new show “Snowfall,” which will debut on FX next month, explores how the crack epidemic affected Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles during the 1980s. But today in another city, Cleveland, a rising number of Blacks are dying from opioid-related drug use. In 2016, 58 Black people died from fentanyl overdoses. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s like morphine but up to 100 times more powerful, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Cocaine laced with fentanyl and the animal tranquilizer carfentanil has likely contributed to the rising number of Cleveland-area Blacks suffering fatal overdoses. Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Thomas Gibson said that twice the number of Blacks have died from fentanyl use this year than last year. Moreover, from 2014 to 2016, deadly fentanyl overdoses in the Black community rose by almost 900 percent — from six to 58. With 50 blacks dead of fentanyl-related causes at the halfway point of 2017, Gibson predicts a year-end total death toll of about 125.

As whites have died in the suburbs and rural areas such as Appalachia from opioid abuse, politicians and police officers no longer endorse the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality they favored during the crack years. While running for president last year, Texas senator Ted Cruz discussed his half-sister Miriam’s drug-related death at age 49.

“These tragedies are happening in human lives all over this country,” he said in February 2016. “It’s the human journey. It’s fraught with peril and sometimes people make decisions bound and determined to destroy themselves. As a family you wonder: What could I have done more? Was there a way to change the path she was on? Those are questions you never fully answer.”

Rather than vilify his sister, Cruz acknowledged that drug abuse is an unfortunate but common part of the human experience. And he’s not alone. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has encouraged treatment rather than punishment for drug addicts. In New York City, nearly three-quarters of the police department’s 23,000 patrol officers receive training to administer naloxone, which can counteract an opioid overdose. In Burlington, Vt., the authorities follow overdose victims to emergency rooms and urge them to enter rehab rather than arresting them for drug use. The New York Times points out the unusualness of this response compared to the way police officers handled crack addicts during the 1980s and ’90s.

“Labeling it a health epidemic, not a war on drugs,” the paper noted, “marks a stark contrast with the criminal justice system’s approach to the crack-cocaine plague, which was met by mass arrests in mostly Black and Hispanic communities.”

Given the history of the country’s war on drugs and the tensions that remain between African-Americans and law enforcement, it’s natural for Blacks to question whether government officials and police officers will respond with compassion to the recent spike in opioid deaths in the African-American community. So far, officials in Cuyahoga County, the home of police-killing victim Tamir Rice, appear to be willing to take action to help Blacks get the treatment they need. They acknowledge that many such drug users don’t even realize their supply has been laced with fentanyl and carfentanil.

Ohio Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge is backing legislation to have the federal government fund drug treatment programs. She believes treatment and education are both useful weapons to combat drug fatalities.

“We have to find a way to get some control over the sales of fentanyl,” she said. “We have to start to educate people … who are less educated about the drugs, who have less resources and who tend to be treated at a lower rate.”

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