Our recent article on the rapid spread of opioid addiction noted that the rate of heroin addiction has been steadily climbing over the past few years as well. We also noted that rising addiction rates are not confined to a single economic class, putting a damper on the stereotypes that often cloud the public’s perception of addiction demographics and statistics. What we did not talk about at great length in that article was race; however, it was just last fall that this potentially touchy subject entered the conversation in a rather interesting way.
The New York Times ran an article in late October of 2015 that discussed the ways in which white families were seeking to change the nation’s approach to the ever-raging War on Drugs. This article did not skirt the race issue at all, noting that close to 90% of first-time heroin users over the past ten years had been of Caucasian descent. What followed was an almost shocking discussion regarding the manner in which rising rates of heroin addiction in this specific demographic have influenced many families’ view of our current approach to drug-related crimes.
While the article itself may be somewhat dated, much of the information within remains relevant today. Below, we intend to examine the current approach to dealing with those who suffer from heroin addiction, as well as addiction to other illegal substances. We will discuss how race appears to influence the changing public perspective, and question whether or not it should ever have become a factor in the first place. Finally, we will talk about the manner in which criminal offenders who suffer from heroin addiction should be treated, regardless of race or status.
The Current Approach to Heroin Addiction
First of all, it’s worth noting that our current approach to drug-related crimes extends far beyond heroin addiction. In fact, the War on Drugs began largely as a war on crack cocaine. The aforementioned article published by The New York Times specifically described the early crack epidemic as one which largely affected economically challenged urban areas, the inhabitants of which were primarily African-American. And while the article in question did not take a stance regarding whether or not race was a factor in deciding the punishment for drug-related crimes, they do note that many crack users who were arrested in the early days of the War on Drugs were given long and unsympathetic prison sentences.
This is often still the case today. Many who suffer from heroin addiction, crack addiction, or addiction to just about any other illegal substance you can name are often forced to ride out their initial period of detoxification and withdrawal while suffering in a jail cell. Many members of the public have no problem with this, largely due to ever-persistent personality myths that deny the common notion of addiction as a disease. And while it is true that criminal offenders did choose to break the law, one cannot simply ignore the nature of the disease from which they suffer.
But while the rates of heroin addiction continue to rise, many believe that a softer legal approach must be sought. Unfortunately, this has not been spurred on by a mere sudden outbreak of empathy for those who suffer from addiction. The primary factor in the growing sympathy for drug addicts has been that more and more families are seeing the worst of its effects. We’re sure it comes as no surprise to hear that the growing rates of heroin addiction have been accompanied by increased rates of overdose deaths. As increasing numbers of parents lose their children to heroin addiction, many of them have understandably been struck with the desire to see fewer families suffer.
At this point, you might be wondering why The New York Times brought race into the discussion at all. While we mentioned the increase of white users, the hard truth is that heroin addiction has been increasing in pretty much every demographic. And while it’s unfortunate that it took numerous overdose deaths to influence the push for legislation dictating softer handling of drug-related crimes, the manner in which race played a role in this new outlook is also rather regrettable.
Why is Race Even a Factor in the Discussion?
Again, it is important to remember that heroin addiction has been rising in every demographic. So why would The New York Times identify a connection between the influx of white users and the growing push to advocate for treatment instead of prison? Michael Botticelli, who acts as director for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, commented on this very issue:
“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered. They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”
While well-intentioned, these remarks may certainly offend minority families of those who have been lost to drug addiction. Do they not know how to call legislators? Do they not know how to get angry or to lobby for change? There would be no such thing as diversity in recovery if there were not diversity in addiction, and believe us when we say that the families of overdose victims are indeed angry.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw works with the law schools at Columbia and UCLA, specializing in race issues. She says of this new view of heroin addiction:
“This new turn to a more compassionate view of those addicted to heroin is welcome. But one cannot help notice that had this compassion existed for African-Americans caught up in addiction and the behaviors it produces, the devastating impact of mass incarceration upon entire communities would never have happened.”
Crenshaw is not belittling the suffering of white addicts or their families, but she raises a valid point. Race should not be a factor in the push for a more sympathetic approach to heroin addiction. The disease model of alcoholism and drug addiction has existed since long before the spread of heroin addiction began gaining momentum in the past decade. There was always a basis to advocate for treatment instead of prison.
But regardless of the circumstances, we may now stand on the precipice of great changes in the way our legal system views heroin addiction. In fact, those who suffer from alcoholism and drug addiction in general may soon be set to receive the treatment they deserve. The question is how long it will take for true change to be enacted.
Will These Developments Impact Legislation?
The New York Times ran their article on these issues just a week after Barack Obama made a public address in West Virginia, a state in which overdose rates have been especially high. He outlined a plan to provide greater access to addiction treatment for those who need it. The plan would cost around $133 million, which might not sit well with taxpayers who lack firsthand knowledge regarding the pain suffered by addicts and their families. For those who know this pain, however, a program like this could be just what addicts need.
Another plan was announced around the same time, entailing the release of approximately six thousand federal inmates. Again, this is the sort of thing that could put some people on edge. But the release of these inmates was related to a new take on sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders of drug-related crimes. Granted, even the nonviolent nature of their crimes would not sit well with some, as the majority of inmates were specifically drug dealers. Said the mother of a young man from New Hampshire whose heroin addiction ultimately led to his death:
“These dealers aren’t just selling it. They’re murdering people.”
In a fair number of cases, this is true. There are many dealers who use heroin addiction, crack addiction or what have you in order to exploit people and keep them hooked. But there are also many dealers who suffer from these conditions themselves. In such cases, their illegal enterprise is simply a way of ensuring that their own habits stay funded. Many dealers in this position will suffer from profound guilt when they receive treatment for their addiction. Treating them as less than human will not help them recover, and it will not truly help them atone for their misdeeds. But if they receive treatment and learn to make amends during recovery, then perhaps some of the harm they have caused might be undone. Overdose deaths suffered by former customers cannot be reversed, but treatment might just be enough to ensure that no other families lose their children. Meanwhile, keeping them in prison without providing treatment for their addiction might not be enough of a deterrent to keep them from repeating their crimes upon release.
Again, the circumstances are unfortunate. It should not take rising rates of heroin addiction and overdose death to influence legislation that will make treatment more accessible to those who need it. Nonetheless, it appears that just such a change is on the verge of occurring. With an upcoming election, we must hope that the winning candidate does not let the cause of fighting drug addiction fall by the wayside. But with numerous politicians nationwide having suffered their own family losses due to heroin addiction, the need to start taking a smarter approach to drug addiction is a concern that has spread across party lines. And when legislators are ready to begin doing the right thing, treatment centers like Amethyst will most definitely be offering our support.