Criminals or Victims: A Curious Shift after Fifty Years of Failed Drug Policy

Will Rebranding the "War on Drugs" into a "Societal Opioid Epidemic" Help Cure Addiction, Violence, and Incarceration for African American Communities, or is it a Way to Keep Caucasians out of Prison?

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iphone with lines of cocaine and pills.
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Almost 50 years ago, President Nixon officially announced a war on drugs, and described that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.” The result was an increase in federal funding for drug-control agencies, and stricter penalties for drug crimes, such as mandatory prison sentencing. The war on drugs also led to a 500% increase in the U.S. incarcerated population over a 40 year period, disproportionately affecting minorities. While it’s impossible to attribute this increase strictly to the war on drugs, many experts do agree that it has been a major, if not the primary, factor. Evidence seems to show that black people are more likely to be arrested for drug crime than white people, despite being equally likely to use and less likely to sell drugs.

Fast forward. Speaking at a conference in Atlanta in March 2016, President Obama said, “For too long we’ve viewed drug addiction through the lens of criminal justice. “The most important thing to do is reduce demand. And the only way to do that is to provide treatment – to see it as a public health problem and not a criminal problem.” He said addiction has historically not been viewed as a public health problem, in part because it was viewed as affecting “the poor and minorities.”

In 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order that established a commission to study the “opioid crisis” and called the current situation an “epidemic.”

One thing stands out from the language President Nixon used in his announcement, compared to what Presidents Obama and Trump said. Obama and Trump both make a clear attempt, through word choice, to change the public perception of drug abuse from one of criminality needing incarceration to one of an illness needing treatment.

So, what’s different today from 50 years ago? It’s as simple as black and white. Advisors within the Nixon administration have admitted that their motives for launching the war on drugs were strictly political. In a 1994 interview, Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, John Ehrlichman, said, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

The white majority in the U.S. bought this, just as Nixon had hoped, because it gave them “facts” about criminal behavior in black communities to support their existing racist views. Contrast that with the current environment, when it is rural and suburban white communities bearing the brunt of the scourge of opioid abuse. Where is the hue and cry for stiffer penalties for drug crimes? There is none.  Instead, there is a push for greater access to treatment programs, public awareness, and education. When Trump announced the signing of the Executive Order earlier this year, there was no talk of “arrests” or “incarceration.” All of the phrasing has changed, and there is no longer a “war” but an “epidemic” and a “crisis.” Don’t get me wrong. I do think that more and better services for those who need help with substance abuse are positive developments.

One question still remains in my head, however, and that is whether attempts to re-frame the problems of drug abuse as public health issues will lead to a disassociation of drug-related crimes from black communities. Only time will tell whether the opioid crisis will lead to more treatment-oriented policies, an end to the drug war, and use the new focus to cover every drug addiction, not just opioid addiction or prescription medicines. If society ultimately looks at young black men and women on the street who are hooked on crack cocaine and includes them in the process of healing, then we will truly have moved forward.

Until such a time, I remain skeptical, since too many people want to believe the stereotypes, and calling whites who abuse drugs “people in crisis” and blacks who use drugs “criminals” is an easy way to perpetuate the myths of racism and excuse the double standard.

Ms. Pratt is a loving mother, wife, community advocate for the disenfranchised community, and a co-founder of Desire Ministry, an addictions support group at First Christian Community Church of Annapolis. In 2017, she was a Ward 4 Aldermanic candidate in Annapolis.

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