Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Changing Face of the War on Drugs

In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs:

When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.

And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.

Heroin’s spread into the suburbs and small towns grew out of an earlier wave of addiction to prescription painkillers; together the two trends are ravaging the country.

Deaths from heroin rose to 8,260 in 2013, quadrupling since 2000 and aggravating what some were already calling the worst drug overdose epidemic in United States history.

Over all, drug overdoses now cause more deaths than car crashes, with opioids like OxyContin and other pain medications killing 44 people a day.
Before continuing, I think it's worth pausing for a moment to consider how huge that number is. More drug overdoses than car crash deaths? Doesn't that raise the question: if we can improve auto safety and save lives like we did over the past 30 years, can't we figure out a way to get these people the treatment they need to lower drug overdoses as well (outside the criminal justice system)?
In one of the most striking shifts in this new era, some local police departments have stopped punishing many heroin users. In Gloucester, Mass., those who walk into the police station and ask for help, even if they are carrying drugs or needles, are no longer arrested. Instead, they are diverted to treatment, despite questions about the police departments’ unilateral authority to do so. It is an approach being replicated by three dozen other police departments around the country.
Can you imagine something like that happening in the 80's (or hell, even today) with, say, an African-American dude, walking into a police station with a crack pipe, asking for help? 

I'll let the far more eloquent Kimberle Crenshaw sum it up for me:
“This new turn to a more compassionate view of those addicted to heroin is welcome,” said KimberlĂ© Williams Crenshaw, who specializes in racial issues at Columbia and U.C.L.A. law schools. “But,” she added, “one cannot help notice that had this compassion existed for African-Americans caught up in addiction and the behaviors it produces, the devastating impact of mass incarceration upon entire communities would never have happened.”
Precisely. I am both happy and saddened, obviously, that it's taken this spike in heroin usage to get white, middle class suburban people to realize the folly and injustices of 35+ year old War on Drugs, mass incarceration, zero-tolerance and the general stupidity of "get tough" policies.

But it's cold comfort for the poor, inner-city, rural and minority communities who have born the brunt of the ravages of drug usage in this country. The same thing happening in white suburban communities with heroin today, is what wiped out many poor and minority neighborhoods 20 and 30 years ago during the crack epidemic.

The point remains, narcotics have always been a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem. Perhaps we're all finally starting to wake up to that realization.

UPDATE: And of course, the role of Big Pharma and Big Medicine in all this should not be underestimated. Virtually every heroin addict began their addiction on legal painkillers, overprescribed by drug dealers in lab coats, then transitioned to the cheaper street version of heroin.
THERE has been an alarming and steady increase in the mortality rate of middle-aged white Americans since 1999, according to a study published last week. This increase — half a percent annually — contrasts starkly with decreasing death rates in all other age and ethnic groups and with middle-aged people in other developed countries.

So what is killing middle-aged white Americans? Much of the excess death is attributable to suicide and drug and alcohol poisonings. Opioid painkillers like OxyContin prescribed by physicians contribute significantly to these drug overdoses.

Thus, it seems that an opioid overdose epidemic is at the heart of this rise in white middle-age mortality. The rate of death from prescription opioids in the United States increased more than fourfold between 1999 and 2010, dwarfing the combined mortality from heroin and cocaine. In 2013 alone, opioids were involved in 37 percent of all fatal drug overdoses.

Driving this opioid epidemic, in large part, is a disturbing change in the attitude within the medical profession about the use of these drugs to treat pain. Traditionally, opioid analgesics were largely used to treat pain stemming from terminal diseases like cancer, or for short-term uses, such as recovering from surgery.

Wiping out vast swaths of middle age Americans, and creating a new generation of heroin addicts to replace them when they're dead and gone.

So again: what's the difference between a doctor in a lab coat or scrubs, and a drug pusher on the street corner wearing a hoodie?

Answer: there is no difference.

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