In the past few decades in America’s history, we launched our first space station, witnessed the September 11 attacks and watched the election of the first black president. One thing held constant in those two decades, and it is the drug epidemic that took the lives of tens of thousands. However, there is one difference between the 1980s and 2018, and it is the repercussions for those using drugs: incarceration vs rehabilitation.
The Nixon administration locked up those who sold and used drugs and created an image for the public to “associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” explained former Nixon Aide John Ehrlichman.
This rigid economic policy defunded inner-city schools and pushed away many jobs. It pushed the black unemployment rate to 20 percent in 1980, ripping black families apart due to unstable job markets that were forcing many men in economically unstable communities to sell drugs.
According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, throughout the 1980s, black people were doing drugs at the same rate as white people, but black people were being arrested and sentenced disproportionately. By 1990, the US held 25 percent of the world’s jail population, with the largest percentage being black men who were charged with non-violent drug offenses.
Now in 2018, addiction is being classified as a disease according to research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This ideology has shifted to prescribing synthetic opioids to help victims come down easier from their addiction instead of just throwing them in jail. While this is beneficial for many facing the opioid epidemic, one cannot look past the fact that there is one major difference between 1980 and 2018—race. Treatments and perspectives of drug users has drastically changed, especially considering that those who use are now predominantly white teens.
“It is very clear that this epidemic is overwhelmingly white,” explained Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a drug abuse expert and professor at Brandeis University, in an NPR interview.
While times certainly have changed, racial stigmatization has not. Like any point in American history, privilege and power equate. There seems to be a racial advantage to being white.
“They are able to flip the narrative and play innocent because it's the doctor’s fault for prescribing them opioids, and now it’s the doctor’s fault that they have to go out and get heroin,” Johnson continued.
White teens have been able to switch the narrative, and they became victims of an ongoing drug war. Opioids used by white people started a quick and effective transition to better and healthier drug prevention and rehabilitation. This distinct difference has caused a lot of confusion and hostility towards the U.S. government for how they reacted to these epidemics because truly, the opioid epidemic finally became a crisis when white people became involved.