These days, the so-called “war on drugs” has taken a dramatic turn, with a shift away from treating substance abuse as a criminal issue, and a bipartisan consensus that this should be treated as a public health issue.
As Nora Kelly reported in The Atlantic, there is an opioid epidemic across the country, and it is chiefly a white problem that is increasingly affecting higher-income whites. Hence, the bipartisan agreement to move away from a law-enforcement approach. Members of the National Governors Association, who are holding their winter conference in Washington, met with President Obama at the White House on Monday.
“This is an area when I can get agreement from Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell,” President Obama said, referring to senators from Vermont and Kentucky, two states particularly affected by the epidemic. “That doesn’t happen that often,” but “it indicates the severity of the issue,” he said.
The governors, Democratic and Republican alike, want to develop protocols for the safe use of opioid pain relievers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prescription painkillers were responsible for over 70 percent of drug-related overdose deaths in 2013. Further, prescription painkillers are viewed as a gateway to heroin, both of which are opiate-based, as four out of every five new heroin users had already abused prescription drugs. The problem is particularly white and rural, as Kelly reports.
In a joint statement from the NGA and the American Medical Association, the groups said it is “unacceptable that nearly 30,000 Americans die each year from the misuse and abuse of prescription opioids and heroin. To end this national epidemic that claims the lives of so many of our family members and fellow citizens, governors, physicians, state legislatures and other stakeholders must join together to take action.”
“We must prioritize treatment for substance use disorder, a medical disease that needs our care and compassion. Millions of Americans need help overcoming this disease, but the challenge lies in closing the treatment gap,” the statement continued, arguing that it is time to end the hold that the epidemic has on the nation. “In addition, we must continue to promote overdose prevention and education efforts.”
President Obama cut to the chase and said that race and class affects how America has dealt with the issue of drugs.
“When it was isolated to certain low-income communities or minority communities, the tendency was [that] jail was a sufficient deterrent or approach,” Obama said. However, “as it has affected a broader and broader cross section of America, people start realizing [that] this is a complicated problem. There has to be a law enforcement element, but there also has to be a public health element to it.”
The President’s statement highlights the lengths to which society and its leaders will coalesce around a “crisis” when white folks are hanging in the balance. But when Black people are involved, they are simply left hanging and swinging in the breeze. When white people are at risk and demand a solution, help is on the way in bipartisan fashion. But when Black people need help, as they have for decades, now is never the right time, and it wouldn’t be politically prudent to help Black folks.
Even the President and the other Democrats require vast amounts of pressure from Black constituencies — their base — before they take notice of our crises, much less do anything about the problem. Obama received criticism, particularly in the first term of his presidency, for turning a deaf ear to the cries of Black America, as white neo-liberal advisers from Wall Street seemed to dominate his inner circle.
Meanwhile, when drugs were perceived as a Black thing, lawmakers brought the hammer down on the Black community. And it was a bipartisan effort. Now that the prisons are filled with Black bodies and the damage has been done — mission accomplished — we can now focus on white deaths to drugs as a public health crisis.
As Kirsten West Savali points out in The Root, white Americans are being treated to a gentler war on drugs that amounts to a slap in the collective faces of Black people.
“This suggestion that if only we had enough intelligence, if only we had made enough noise, then African-American communities would have been treated more gently by police officers when they came through the hood stopping and frisking for drugs is disingenuous and dangerous,” Savali wrote.
She added that drug addiction is a serious health issue that affects all groups regardless of race, ethnicity or class. And while drugs need to be decriminalized, whites are being protected while Blacks continue to face punishment.
“Police officers and politicians are simply making it clear that the war on drugs was never supposed to include white America,” she added. “It is racist, systemic, purposeful violence in the truest sense of the word, and there is nothing gentle about that.”
The New York Times seems particularly interested in the concept of white drug deaths. A Times report in January found that drug overdoses are fueling an increase in mortality rates among young white people, as death rates fall for Blacks and Latinos.
“The rising death rates for young white adults, ages 25 to 34, make them the first generation since the Vietnam War years to experience higher death rates in early adulthood than the previous generation,” according to the story from Gina Kolata and Sarah Cohen.
The report added that the increased death rates for white drug overdoses and suicides “have erased the benefits from advances in medical treatment for most age groups of whites” and “are running counter to those of chronic diseases” such as heart disease.
Also, in an op-ed in the New York Times, Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, unpacked the issue of white people killing themselves with drugs and drinking themselves to death. Cherlin articulates the concept of reference group theory, which helps us understand how people behave. Under the theory, people view how their life is going based on how they stand compared to their parents. Blacks and Latinos have always known hard times in the country and yet they are far more positive about the future. Whites, on the other hand, have everything and always did, and they are earning and owning far more than people of color. Comparing themselves to the previous generation of whites, who had more economically than the current generation, today’s white folks feel worse off:
And here is one solution to the death-rate conundrum: It’s likely that many non-college-educated whites are comparing themselves to a generation that had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to a generation that had fewer opportunities.
Black folks, on the other hand, never had any high expectations for anything, though we always suffered and continue to suffer to this day. And now that drug addiction has changed in complexion, white America gets help when all we got were cops and prisons.