Tyrrell: Don’t bring race into addiction issues

Eileen Tyrrell

America is in the midst of a crisis.

This crisis kills more people than guns or cars, is increasing exponentially and reveals startling insight into how we as a nation address drug abuse. I’m talking about the opioid epidemic.

According to the New York Times, approximately 64,000 people died from overdosing last year, with opioids leading the pack. President Trump has declared the epidemic a “public health emergency,” and deaths involving opioids have increased by 540 percent in the last three years alone.

Although we are starting to understand how so many people got hooked, the question remains: What can be done about the worst drug epidemic in American history? And what does the answer to that question reveal about the way we view drug abuse itself?

Although opioid abuse has been around as long as this country, the opioid crisis as we know it today has its roots back in the 1980s when doctors started prescribing more opioids to treat chronic pain. By the ’90s, the pharmaceutical industry was aggressively marketing drugs like OxyContin, which became more and more popular and eventually led to something even deadlier: heroin.

Heroin was on the rise among teens and young adults throughout the early 2000s until it leveled off around 2014. That was the same year a newer, stronger drug—up to 50 times as potent as heroin—entered the market in mass amounts: fentanyl. Fentanyl is a synthetic version of heroin, and its use in America doubled between 2014 and 2016. It is largely responsible for the exponential increase in opioid deaths over the past few years.

Although any type of drug abuse is a complex problem with no silver bullet solution, the beginnings of the opioid crisis can be clearly traced back to its roots in the ’80s, when doctors began prescribing opioids to treat pain. According to drugabuse.gov, 6 to 12 percent of Americans, ages 12-25, abuse prescription medicines today.

Among the younger demographic, prescription drug abuse can lead to heroin and fentanyl addiction. But what seems to be causing the most disruption, at least on the political plane, is the spread of opioid abuse to a new demographic: older, wealthier, white Americans.

According to Vox.com, white Americans have been hit by opioid addiction the hardest, most likely because they are more likely to be prescribed and able to afford heavy pain medications than minorities. It is this new context of drug addiction that is creating change in the way we treat drug abuse.

For comparison, let’s look at the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Addicts were viewed as “junkies” and “crackheads,” and in 1986 the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed in Congress, requiring mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted on cocaine charges.

To many people, drug addicts — particularly “crackheads” — were simply criminals to be thrown in jail, rather than treated with empathy and understanding. Sentences for crack were much heavier than those for powder cocaine. According to the NCBI, racial minorities, particularly African Americans, are at a low risk of powder cocaine abuse in comparison to crack abuse. This means that predominantly black communities suffered the harshest punishments during the War on Drugs, something that has had a lasting impact on black communities.  

Now let’s look at today’s epidemic, one that affects mostly white communities. Opioid abuse has been treated as a medical crisis which should be met with counseling, addiction treatment and empathy, rather than increased police force and jail time. Opioid addicts are viewed not as criminals, but as victims.

It’s not very hard to understand where the difference comes from. As evangelical pastor Ed Stetzer writes in a column for the Washington Post, “What I am struck by now is how my perspective has changed … It’s worth noting what crack meant to us. It meant black street crime. Today, what the opioid epidemic means for many of us: Whites need treatment.”

There’s no doubt, this new approach to addiction is more effective and humane than our previous tactics. Addicts need detox clinics, counseling and medical attention, not jail time. But what is so important about realizing this is realizing why it is occurring.

When the victims are white, it changes the way we treat addiction.

So, what’s the takeaway from this? What can we learn? First of all, we should treat ALL victims of drug and alcohol addiction with empathy, compassion and humanity. No one wakes up one day and decides they’re going to become a drug addict, and we need to understand those people need our help rather than our hatred.

Second of all, we need to take a good long look at our justice system and the way we view crime in this society. Implicit bias is real, and it is fully integrated into our culture. This is not acceptable. No longer can we tolerate racism in our government, our justice system and our culture.

There is nothing wrong with the fact that we are treating opioid addicts with medical attention and abuse counseling rather than criminal charges. What we need to realize, though, is that the income you make or the color of your skin does not determine who falls victim to addiction; it has an impact on us all.

It’s time we acted accordingly.