“I will say that I’m glad that we’re finally able to have a conversation. When I watch the Republican Party hugging heroin addicted folks opiate addicted folks it makes me very happy, but it also makes me very mad because those same Republicans and Democrats, when the problem was crack, show no mercy no compassion no understanding at all and locked up a bunch of people. I do think that now it’s hitting everybody hopefully we can come up with a more compassionate response.”
~ Van Jones
Since 2014, New York state has reported more deaths by heroin overdose than from homicide. The number of heroin overdoses doubled from 2010 to 2012, affecting everyone from the poor, to middle class college aged students. Needless to say heroin addiction has re-emerged as a serious mainstream problem facing Americans nationwide. Every day 120 people overdose on opioid based narcotics, much of which are associated with complications from painkillers and heroin abuse. The heroin epidemic affects Americans of all demographics, from rural areas to urban areas and among both rich and poor. Yet many people are not conscious to how severe its impact is.
Ultimately, heroin addiction has become such a serious issue in the States that many legislators are considering unconventionally sympathetic methods of combatting the issues, moving towards providing treatment and supervision as opposed to locking up the diseased. Ironically, the change in attitudes concerned with substance abuse have changed as the demographic of victims has shifted from those coming from poor, urban, minority neighborhoods to more affluent, white, suburban communities. Many marginalized communities face continued impact by the merciless drug wars levied against them, beginning in the 1980s. The pronounced differences between the the ways in which issues of drug abuse are confronted depending on race and socioeconomic status is impossible to ignore.
Why The Resurgence?
Over 3.5 million people over the age of 12 reported experimenting with heroin. The number of reported heroin abusers has almost doubled from 370,000 in 2007 to 680,000 in 2013, making it a more popular choice of recreational drug use than crack cocaine. Even more concerning are the 120 opioid related drug overdoses that occur on a daily basis nationwide, much of which are due to complications associated with heroin use.
The resurgence of heroin after its considerable decline as a drug of choice can be partly attributed to the over prescription of opiate based painkillers. Many addicts turn to heroin once their opiate prescriptions reduced. Others opt to take advantage of the accessibility and low cost of cheap heroin as a substitute for prescription drugs they can no longer afford.
Traditional American Victims (For lack of a better word)
The face of heroin abuse in the United States has changed drastically. Fifty years ago, the demographic of heroin users was overwhelmingly male, disproportionately black, and predominantly poor. Today however, most heroin users in the United States are women, from suburban middle class communities and 90 percent of those victimized by the illicit narcotics are white, facilitating a more intimate relationship between affluent legislators and suburban addicts.
Road to Legalization?
Despite heroin still being categorized as as schedule I illegal narcotic, many American politicians are considering nontraditional methods of combatting deaths from overdose and heroin addiction. Cities such as Seattle, WA and Ithaca, NY are shedding light on the idea of setting up safe houses, in an effort to provide addicts with a safe, hygienic facility to consume heroin, providing clean needles, supervision and intervention in the face of potentially fatal overdoses. Proponents argue that not only would the existence of safe houses reduce the number of deaths from overdoses, but would also encourage a path for treatment and eventual sobriety.
Cities such as Vancouver, which operates the only supervised injection center in North America, provide proponents of such a radical idea with encouraging data. The Vancouver safe house “Insite”, which opened in 2003 reported having saved lives on a daily basis, while also saving millions on health care and public safety costs, and reducing transmission of diseases from dirty needles. Such data has enabled legislators and social movements to gain traction on the idea of setting up supervised injection centers for the purpose of saving lives and promoting addiction treatment. Doing so would be an unfamiliar means of combatting the American drug problem with empathy, says the poor black community….sarcastically.
But When the Addicts Were Black Nobody Cared….
During the 1960s and 1980s, Americans were subject to another drug scourge of epidemic proportions associated with heroin and crack cocaine abuse. Rather than combat the rise in drug use and increased crime rates with treatment, the United States government levied an assault on inner city communities of color known as the War on Drugs. Yes, “war”. Like “War on Terror”…Ok.
Data and past attitudes suggest a clear racial bias in the ways these different epidemics were approached. When people of color were victimized by drug addiction they were criminalized. In contrast, when a particular addiction disproportionately victimizes white Americans it is treated as a public health crisis. Although one could argue the influential impact of time’s contributions to a change in modern approach, can we agree that other contributing factors might include race and socioeconomic status? Just might?
When considering the medieval mandatory sentencing laws that were passed through congress almost immediately in the 1980s? Still? Even when considering the 100:1 disparity of mandatory minimums prompted by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 between crack, a drug with an 85 percent black usage rate, and powdered cocaine, the more affluent version of the drug? Despite this number now being closer to 18:1, Still? Even when considering the demonization and criminalization of marijuana, when the drug was associated with Mexican immigrants in the 30s, enabling law enforcement to incarcerate and deport them after the Mexican Revolution. This despite cannabis being prevalent in American medications for decades prior. Compared to the attitudes of marijuana use in the 60s when white college aged hippies were experimenting with the drug, still?
Ultimately, the idea of treating drug addiction as a public health issue combatted by medical professionals, as opposed to treating it with police, judges and prosecutors, will almost inevitably lead to a reduction in overdose deaths and the eventual reduction of heroin use in general. There are currently about 100 supervised injection centers worldwide, many reporting trends of overdose reduction and increases in treatment entry. Still, cynics can only wish that such measures were employed against the fight of hard drugs when narcotics are destroying people of color.
Helps to have something in common with United States governors I guess.