Pubdate: Sun, 18 May 2014
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2014 The Washington Post Company
Authors: Stephen Lerner, Nelini Stamp
Note: Stephen Lerner is a fellow at Georgetown University's
Kalmanovitz Initiative and the architect of the Justice for Janitors
campaign. Nelini Stamp is the youth engagement director for Working Families.


Last month, NBC News ran a series of stories about the United States'
"growing heroin epidemic." Two things stand out in the reports: One is
their sympathetic tone; the other is that almost everyone depicted is

Drug users and their families aren't vilified; there is no panicked
call for police enforcement. Instead, and appropriately, there is a
call for treatment and rehabilitation. Parents of drug addicts express
love for their children, and everyone agrees they need support to get

In one NBC report, a drug court judge kindly cajoles and encourages
people into getting treatment to avoid jail time. Another shows a
teacher who was shooting up in the school bathroom now off drugs and
happily married. Parents talk passionately about the need to have
access to Naloxone, a drug that can counteract heroin overdoses. Every
user is treated as a human being who made a mistake and who, with the
proper support, can go on to live a productive life.

The heroin epidemic has exploded in white America. The Post has
reported on its arrival in affluent Fairfax County, where "young
people are jeopardizing their futures with a drug that for decades was
seen as the choice of only the most desperate and hardened city
junkies." Peter Shumlin (D), the governor of Vermont - one of the
whitest states - devoted his entire State of the State address this
year to the effect of opiate addiction on Vermonters and what
government could do to help them.

Clearly, new attention to heroin use in white, affluent areas is
changing the perceptions and politics of drug addiction. No longer are
the addicts "desperate and hardened." Apparently, heroin use isn't the
result of bad parenting, the rise of single-parent families or
something sick or deviant in white culture. It isn't an incurable
plague that is impossible to treat except with jail time. Drug addicts
no longer are predatory monsters.

In short, the root problem is not the degeneracy of a group of
Americans. The use of heroin has spread - the National Survey on Drug
Use and Health reported that America had 373,000 users in 2007 and
669,000 in 2012- and the increase is largely attributed to heroin
being much cheaper than prescription opiates, which are harder to get
legally and increasingly expensive on the black market. Economics are
driving white suburban addiction, not the dysfunction often attributed
to communities of color when those young people abuse drugs.

You can't help but wonder how the story of a black teacher in an
inner-city school shooting drugs in the school bathroom would be
characterized. Or how the heroin addiction of a single black mother
with two sons would be depicted on the nightly news.

Actually, we don't have to wonder: We know exactly drug use has been
depicted and responded to when it was perceived chiefly as a problem
in communities of color. The 1973 Rockefeller drug laws in New York
mandated a minimum sentence of 15 years to life in jail for selling
two ounces or possessing four ounces of heroin. The federal government
followed suit in the 1980s with mandatory minimum sentencing as part
of its "war on drugs."

The media responded to the 1980s crack epidemic with countless stories
of incurable "crack babies" who would inevitably grow up to be
criminals. The "culture of poverty" welfare queens and poor people
were themselves the cause of drug abuse, and the only solution to
protect society (read: white society) was swift, harsh and unrelenting
punishment and long jail sentences.

We can only hope that the sympathy shown to white, often affluent,
young heroin users will add momentum to the calls to roll back the
wasteful incarceration policies that hurt the country as a whole and
have disproportionately impacted communities of color. The district
attorney for Brooklyn plans to stop prosecuting people arrested for
possession of small amounts of marijuana, and marijuana is being
decriminalized and legalized across the country. The Obama
administration recently announced a pathway to clemency for some
nonviolent drug offenders. These are baby steps in the right direction
to slow and start to reverse one of the major causes of mass
incarceration of people of color.

Disparate drug enforcement and sentencing is just one part of a larger
story about growing economic and racial inequality in the U.S. legal
system. If we want to live up to our creed of equal justice under the
law, we either have to reform our drug laws or lock up all those nice
Fairfax County kids and throw away the key.  
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