Racial double standard in heroin response


Today the average heroin addict is a white suburban teen.  But instead of using the same old tactics former President Richard Nixon began in the 70s with the war on drugs, a far more different approach is being used to reach the new heroin addict.  A war on drugs and public health problems are two very different things. The war on drugs exists only in what some people call “the hood” and produces a steady flow of inmates, repeat offenders, and targets black Americans, with no solution to the problem.  Labeling heroin abuse as an epidemic and thus a public health problem will produce a solution oriented result. Sadly, these are solutions never meant for the inner-city or areas heavily populated with black youth. 

GRAPHIC BY: Amber Williams
GRAPHIC BY: Amber Williams

Whatever you want to call it, whether it is china white, smack or boy, people have been dying for years from an overdose of the drug heroin. Lives and neighborhoods shattered to the point of ill repair due to drug abuse is a sad reality.  Somewhere, there is a junky, nodding with a needle in his arm, ready to chase his next high. This has been happening for decades to people, but the majority of them were black people, until recent years.

During an NPR broadcast, the executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (NCADA), Howard Weissman, spoke openly about how this particular epidemic is more concentrated among white folks and no longer a black problem.

“Heroin is primarily a drug being used in suburbs and rural areas more than urban areas,” Weissman said.

I remember as a child watching my cousin wallow in pain while his body feigned for one more hit of the drug it had come to rely on in order to function. He had come to our house in search of some form of relief, of which there was none. His whole body ached from withdrawals. His appearance had declined drastically, and it was almost as if you could smell the stench of poison seeping from his pores. He said he felt like his body was being pulled apart. 

With numbers as high as 324 deaths in the St. Louis area caused by heroin and other opiates in 2015, Weissman said it is obvious we need an intervention. Now that suburban, middle-class white teens are on the hunt for the deadly drug, it is labeled as an epidemic.  In fact, this is the second year in a row NCADA has aired an ad during the Superbowl in order to bring awareness on the use of heroin by this unsuspecting group of white middle-class teens.   

This is a wonderful approach, and I am sure dozens upon dozens of parents will spark conversations with their children about heroin and how deadly it can be.  Those parents will keep a better count on their own prescriptions to make sure their teen is not getting high by stealing out of the medicine cabinet at home. As a mom, I have talked to my son and teens I know about the effects of heroin.  Their lives are just as important as anyone else’s.  Organizations are being formed and hotlines are being set up to report abuse.  Where was this approach before?

In the 70s, 80s and 90s the predominantly black neighborhoods never experienced this type of urgency of rescue when their homes and neighborhoods were flooded with dope.  I’ve witnessed instead, a decline that can be seen in those same neighborhoods by the dilapidated homes still standing, the spike in the number of people incarcerated in the area, and the number of children sucked into the revolving door of foster care.       

“We took a law enforcement approach to those. We arrested people, we broke down doors, we shattered lives. We did not treat it as a public health problem. We treated it as a criminal problem,” Weissman said.

This is heart breaking because it speaks out loud about how the government and politicians, local media and law enforcement value black life. They do not.  Each of these groups determine what is important and how it is addressed. Not once have I ever turned on the television and watched a reporter tell me of a black youth dying from an overdose of anything, but practically every time a white youth overdoses on the drug it is reported as a tragedy and a loss. 

Nobel Peace Prize recipient and South African social rights activist Desmond Tutu said, “If I diminish you, I diminish myself.” It should not matter what area of town I am from, how dark my skin is or how poor I may be. Humanity should not be limited to skin color or class, and abundantly given to a privileged group. The longer it takes to grasp this concept, the longer it will take to remedy drug abuse among all races of people. 

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