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.
In one NBC report, a drug court judge kindly cajoles and encourages people into getting treatment to avoid jail time. Another shows a teacher who was shooting up in the school bathroom now off drugs and happily married. Parents talk passionately about the need to have access to Naloxone, a drug that can counteract heroin overdoses. Every user is treated as a human being who made a mistake and who, with the proper support, can go on to live a productive life.
The heroin epidemic has exploded in white America. The Washington Post has reported on its arrival in affluent Fairfax County, Virginia, where “young people are jeopardizing their futures with a drug that for decades was seen as the choice of only the most desperate and hardened city junkies.” Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont — one of the whitest states — devoted his entire State of the State address this year to the effect of opiate addiction on Vermonters and what government could do to help them.
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. The use of heroin has spread — the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that America had 373,000 users in 2007 and 669,000 in 2012 — and the increase is largely attributed to heroin being much cheaper than prescription opiates, which are harder to get legally and increasingly expensive on the black market. Economics are driving white suburban addiction, not the dysfunction often attributed to communities of color when those young people abuse drugs.
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.”
The media responded to the 1980s crack epidemic with countless stories of incurable “crack babies” who would inevitably grow up to be criminals. The “culture of poverty” welfare queens and poor people were themselves the cause of drug abuse, and the only solution to protect society (read: white society) was swift, harsh and unrelenting punishment and long jail sentences.
We can only hope that the sympathy shown to white, often affluent, young heroin users will add momentum to the calls to roll back the wasteful incarceration policies that hurt the country as a whole and have disproportionately affected communities of color.
The district attorney for Brooklyn plans to stop prosecuting people arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and marijuana is being decriminalized and legalized across the country. The Obama administration recently announced a pathway to clemency for some nonviolent drug offenders. These are baby steps in the right direction to slow and start to reverse one of the major causes of mass incarceration of people of color.
Disparate drug enforcement and sentencing is just one part of a larger story about growing economic and racial inequality in the U.S. legal system. If we want to live up to our creed of equal justice under the law, we either have to reform our drug laws or lock up all those nice Fairfax County kids and throw away the key.
Stephen Lerner is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative and the architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign. Nelini Stamp is the youth engagement director for Working Families.
Special to The Washington Post