The Black and White Face of Drug Addiction

WASHINGTON, DC - When I was in college in the late 80's, I read a book about "The Two Americas - One Black and One White." As of this writing, I do not remember the details of the book, but I refer to the book to make the following point: America's response to drug addiction and perhaps to other social ills depends largely on the identity of the victims. This statement is based on the stark contrast between the way America reacted and treated the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980's which affected mostly poor blacks versus the current heroin epidemic that has thus far contributed to an increase in white mortality rate in nearly a century.

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Fig.8: Lifetime Drug Use by Race, Ages 12 and Older

Thirty years ago, when crack-cocaine hit American cities, the prevailing national response was that the epidemic was mostly an African-American problem. Black neighborhoods from East New York, Brooklyn, to Oakland, California were considered lawless landscapes manned by "super predators" young black thugs with gang affiliations. The United States declared war on drugs - or more precisely on poor black people. Law enforcement's response from Los Angeles to the Bronx was a military style policing designed to arrest and incarcerated as many people as possible. The police who invaded these neighborhoods did not bother to differentiate between dealers and addicts - and both prosecutors and judges did not care either. Scores of addicted black people ended up in jail. Rehabilitation and re-integration to society was not part of the lexicon. When I was an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn between 2000-2003, I prosecuted many young black men (addicts and dealers), but those who committed crimes because of drug addiction would often get a break from me. I would recommend some kind of intervention/rehabilitation, but the prevailing policy was to send everyone to jail.

What a difference thirty years made? As the heroin epidemic is ravaging Middle America, every police chief in the country is seeking humane ways to deal with heroin addicts. A police chief in upstate New York proposed a heroin injection center where addicts can congregate to inject heroin. Other police chiefs have said that this "is not about crime, but addiction and that these people look like our sisters and brothers." Even presidential candidates from Jeb Bush to John Kasich spoke about their family experiences with drug addictions. President Obama is proposing funds to help with addiction treatment.

You cannot help but conclude that when drug addiction was mainly a black issue, the response was less humane. I do not remember any policy designed to help those blacks that were addicted to enter drug treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration into society. I do not either remember any police chief speaking about the humane face of drug addictions. But I do remember, the neighborhood sweep every weekend and the hundred of drug cases I was expected to prosecute. No one cared about the fact that these people were addicted and sending them to jail would worsen the problem.

It is refreshing however to know that White Americans who are addicted to heroin would have all the resources they need to combat the disease of addiction. Perhaps, we have gotten smarter as a nation and come to understand the disease of addiction better. Or maybe our new found wisdom lies in the fact that the new victims look like the decision makers.

Mr. Roy is a former Assistant Prosecutor from Brooklyn 2000-2003 and a renown writer and editor