End Injustice: Opioid Crisis vs Drug War (appeared in The Hill 9/28/2017)

There is no doubt in the next budget significant money will be allocated in a bipartisan way to fight the opioid epidemic, and rightly so. It is imperative that Congress should also allocate equivalent money for those that need rehabilitation from drug related imprisonment.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation around 33,000 died from overdosing on opioids in 2015. The New York Times estimated it at 60,000. In July 2017, FDA Director Scott Gottlieb wrote that opioid addiction had become “FDA’s biggest crisis.” CDC Director Thomas Frieden said that “America is awash in opioids; urgent action is critical.”

The opioid crisis is mostly prevalent among the lower middle class, working class and rural poor whites. The great recession seems to have had a significant impact on the psyche and drug dependency of a very vital part of our nation creating a massive public health crisis.

The U.S. government has been working for several years on several counter measures to present, manage and treat the opioid abuse but more needs to be done. In 2010, the U.S. government began cracking down on pharmacists and doctors who over prescribed opioid painkillers.

In July 2016, President Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act for opioid addiction treatment, and authorized millions of dollars in new funding for opioid research and treatment. In December 2016, the 21st Century Cures Act passed with wide bipartisan support (94-5 in the Senate and 392-26 in the House) and included $1 billion in state funds to fight the opioid epidemic.

In June 2017, Ohio’s Attorney General Mike DeWine filed a lawsuit against a handful of pharmaceutical companies including Purdue Pharma, Teva and Johnson & Johnson accusing them of spending millions of a marketing campaign to “trivialize the risks of opioids while over stating the benefits of using them for chronic pain.”

How does one answer the African American population that is cynical that all of these activities were motivated by the fact that the opioid crisis is a white problem? The opioid epidemic is indeed disproportionately a white phenomenon. In 2015 according to the data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 83.8 percent of those who died of an opioid were white. African Americans are significantly less likely to be prescribed opioids to treat pain than whites, and this disparity persists even when the numbers are adjusted for socio-economic variables such as income, and even in emergency rooms.

While 33,000 people died from overdosing on opioids in 2015, the crack epidemic in the late 1980s, killed around 94,000 per year. Drug abuse, especially crack cocaine, in the 1980s and 90s was predominantly an African American problem. The reasons for this abuse may have been very similar to the opioid abuse of the recent decade: joblessness, loss of self-esteem due to job loss, societal and economic marginalization. Many turned to cheap heroin and crack cocaine as a livelihood or means of self medication. Of course then the country reacted by declaring “war” on drugs.

The crack cocaine epidemic resulted in militarized policing of mostly minority communities. Police and paramilitary forces armed with assault weapons and tactical training from Special Forces were used to “pacify” neighborhoods suspected of being either buyers or sellers in the crack cocaine “trade.” The federal government responded even more harshly, issuing a discriminatory “100 to 1” decree for the possession or trafficking of crack versus the penalties for trafficking of powder cocaine; this stood for nearly three decades, until 2010, when the Fair Sentencing Act cut the sentencing disparity to 18:1. Someone convicted in federal court of possession of five grams of crack cocaine received a minimum mandatory sentence of five years in prison, compared to less than a year for powder cocaine.

In 1980, about 41,000 people were incarcerated for drug crimes, according to the Sentencing Project. In 2014, that number was about 488,400 — a 1,000 percent increase. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in Time “Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost tenfold increase.”

In 1996, approximately 60 percent of inmates incarcerated in the United States were sentenced on drug charges; around 80 percent of those convicted on crack cocaine were black, 10 percent were Hispanic, and only 10 percent were white. In 2009 alone, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, more than were arrested on assault or larceny charges. And four of five of those arrests were simply for possession.

Throughout the crack cocaine epidemic, there was little or no discussion of the crisis being brought on by economic despair, or that it was a public health issue, or that the users needed rehabilitation. The social upheaval caused by the drug war against minorities and their families has had deep and significant effects.

One would even suspect that the slowdown of social and economic progress of the African American community since the early 1990s could be attributed to the violent reaction of the U.S. government to the drug crisis which sent away many young women and mostly men to languish in prison. These very people could have been productive members of society and helped the economic and social wellbeing of their families. What a waste! As Michael Eric Dyson said in a February 2017 appearance at the University of Memphis, “White brothers and sisters have been medicalized in terms of trauma and addiction. Black and brown people have been criminalized for their trauma and addiction.”

It would be inhumane in the extreme and certainly hypocritical if the United States was to treat the white opioid crisis as though it was a public health issue, and not have an active plan to rehabilitate all those African American and minority lost souls who were equally addicted to cheap drugs by letting them waste away in prison.

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