The Convenience of a Drug Crisis

Because it largely affects white Americans, the opioid crisis—unlike crack in the 1980s—is now seen as a health issue

Illustrator: Jaye Ahn

America is caught an opioid epidemic. In the past year, drugs have killed more Americans than car accidents and gun violence combined, and they are killing at a faster pace than when the HIV crisis was at its peak. Opioids killed an estimated 52,000 Americans in 2015 alone, and that number doesn’t appear to be diminishing.

So, what is the issue exactly? Why is it an issue? And what is America doing to combat it? Here’s a breakdown of the history and current situation of the war on drugs.

First, what is an opioid? Opium is a narcotic collected from a type of poppy. Opium is used to make painkillers, such as morphine and heroin, and other prescription painkillers like Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin, all collectively called opiates. The fact that these opioids can put the body into a state of painless bliss makes them dangerously addictive.

The current drug situation in America is the worst it’s ever been, comparable only to the crack epidemic of the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president. During that time, the situation was treated as a crime epidemic, and addicts were seen as dangerous criminals and basically worthless humans. Reagan’s approach to solving the issue was a “tough on crime” approach, where those who were addicts were incarcerated with no mercy and no medical help. There was very little regard for those who suffered.

Today, we have a similar issue, only a slightly different approach is being employed. President Trump has declared the opioid crisis a “public health emergency.” Under this declaration, addicts will able to be treated medically for their addictions instead of charged as criminals. It is a much gentler approach to the problem; people are starting to realize that being addicted to drugs can happen to anyone, and these people need to be helped not punished.

However, it would be nice if it were just that simple, that America has realized it’s time to be progressive and help addicts overcome their addictions, but there is a larger, underlying issue with the current rhetoric and motivations for America’s progression from Reagan’s era: It is the fact that the current opioid crisis largely affects white, middle- and upper-class citizens, whereas during the crack epidemic of the ‘80s it was largely present in black communities.

The issue of race is woven into the issue of drugs. When it widely affected African-Americans, drug use was seen as a crime, tough punishment was in order, and there was no help for those who were addicted. It is only now, when it widely affects whites, particularly cushy white lawmakers in government, that we are sympathizing with addicts.

The current drug situation in America is the worst it’s ever been, comparable only to the crack epidemic of the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president.

This is a tricky problem because we should be helping addicts, we should have resources to educate young people about the dangers of drugs, and we should have outlets so people who need help can safely get it. Yet, this disparity between how white and black addicts are treated is a plain and horrible example of the racism that ever lingers in America.

One could argue that this new, sympathetic approach to the issue is simply a progression in how we understand drugs—that today we are more knowledgeable and able to understand that the solution is treatment, not incarceration. But that argument becomes irrelevant when you look at the systems of oppression that have been and still are in place when it comes to black Americans. It’s also problematic that the correlation to this progression only came about when it was affecting those of privilege, (white upper-class) and thus those who are able to make a difference (lawmakers). It’s nice to think that we have become enlightened on how to combat the war on drugs, but the only reason we are approaching it from a new, more compassionate and progressive angle is because of the fact that it affects white people. If opioid fatalities were still predominantly affecting black communities, we would not see such sympathy.

Politicians’ new compassionate approach—treatment over punishment—toward drug abuse is good because imprisoning people is not going to help. But this new step forward is also a step back; it has shed light on the fact that barriers of race still exist, the privilege stay privileged, and, well, those without privilege are treated with disdain.

It will be interesting to see where this new approach takes the U.S. Will this be a new step forward for America, or will history repeat itself? During Reagan’s presidency, the “tough on crime” approach was widely considered a good and efficient means of fixing the issue; now, in 2017, we believe that treating it as a health emergency is the new and best way to combat the issue. However, in a couple years, will the same phenomena occur? Where fixing the problem actually creates more issues, especially in terms of race? Will we look back on Trump’s “Public Health Emergency” approach in the same way we do toward Reagan’s “tough on crime” proclamation? We’ll just have to wait and see.