Opioid Crisis vs. the War on Drugs: A Double Standard?

“We would’ve repudiated all of them if they were minorities, but because they’re not people are compassionate.”

Opioid addiction and related deaths disproportionately affect both poor, rural white communities and middle class, suburban white communities. Also, many addicts are introduced to opioids through prescription drugs, which seem to be more socially acceptable than say, crack cocain. Despite the similarities between the spread of opioid addiction and that of crack in the ’80s and early ’90s, public opinion and public policy in response to the two have been profoundly different.

Today’s mostly white opioid addicts are considered part of a public health crisis, and maybe rightly so. But black cocaine addicts in urban ghettos were met with an all out War on Drugs, which is still being waged today with huge social consequences. What is at the root of this double standard, and how does it color our own perceptions of addiction?

Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson talks with Keith Humphreys, psychiatry professor at Stanford University and former policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He also speaks with Ekow Yankah, law professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, who says that how we respond to addiction is based on our perceptions of the addict.

“Our intuitions and our empathy in the drug wars is too often tied up with who we imagine the addicted are and what race we imagine them to be,” says Yankah.  “Time will tell if this kind of rhetoric is combined with more humane and more thoughtful drug policy or if… we just tie our drug policy ever finer to punishing those we always want to punish anyway.”

By “those” Yankah means marginalized populations who are often associated with drug crimes and abuse. Humphreys echos this sentiment.

“If you look at American history,” he says, “we’ve had repeated examples where some group that is the target of prejudice has substance use problems and society really cracks down… The cultural narrative when it’s in those groups is that they deserve these problems because they’re immoral, they’re weak, they’re pleasure seeking, and therefore the response of government should be punitive. And we haven’t seen that with this much more white epidemic… We would’ve repudiated all of them if they were minorities, but because they’re not, people are compassionate.”

To listen to the full show, click the audio player above. 


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