Pubdate: Wed, 18 Apr 2018
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2018 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Petula Dvorak


We have been here before -- a raging epidemic of addiction that
destroys lives, families and communities.

Who was on the front line in the 1990s, when the drug was crack and
the addicts were mostly black? Drug czar William Bennett. His weapons
were prosecution and prison.

Today, when the drugs are opioids and the addicts are mostly white?
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, a doctor, is out there, telling the
country, "We need to see addiction as a chronic disease and not a
moral failing."

Imagine President George H.W. Bush saying those words, while holding a
little baggie of crack cocaine during the height of America's epidemic
in 1989.

Maybe the war on crack cocaine would have been $1 billion in treatment
programs, not $1 billion in prosecution and prison costs.

Maybe the number of people locked up for drug crimes would not have
increased by 1,000 percent in three decades.

And maybe entire communities of color would not have been devastated.

And maybe we would have a way of dealing with the current addiction
epidemic in our country.

But it did not happen that way.

Bush's surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, used his position to go after
tobacco addiction and champion HIV/AIDS education. But to bring him in
on the crack wars? No way.

"We need more jails, more prisons, more courts and more prosecutors,"
President Bush declared in 1989, when thousands of Americans were
dying from drug overdoses or in bloody turf wars.

Of course, President Donald Trump suggested executing drug dealers at
a White House summit last month. He and other Republicans have been
far more sympathetic to those caught in the grip of addiction.

Adams, who works for Trump, is not waving a baggie of illegal drugs,
but an injector for overdose antidote naloxone. Last week he issued a
rarely used official advisory, urging people with an addict in their
family, school or medical practice to learn how to use naloxone
because "keeping it within reach can save a life." (The last advisory
from a surgeon general was in 2005, when Richard Carmona warned
pregnant women against drinking alcohol.)

At the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta recently,
Adams said that for many people, the "opioid crisis is not only
pressing, it's personal. My own brother, as many of you know, is
serving a 10-year prison sentence for stealing $200 to support his

His predecessor in the job, Vivek Murthy, also made the case for
compassion, urging rehabilitation, not jail. Understanding, not
judgment. Treatment, not prosecution.

Why the difference?

"That's easy. They care this time because it's whites dying," said
Jerome, 62, a longtime fixture in an alley called Hanover Place in
Washington, a block that used to be one of the most stubborn open-air
drug markets in the nation's capital.

"Back in the day? It was black folks. So who cared?" said Jerome, from
his motorized wheelchair.

His phone rang. "Excuse me," he told me.

"What's up Fatboy?" he bellowed into the phone.

"That's my twin," he tells me.

"I'm here with a reporter. She's asking about back in the day. You
know they want to hear 'bout what it was like, back in the day?"

He hung up with Fatboy after laughing about the irony of back in the
day and today, when most of the block is dominated by the construction
of the Chapman Stables luxury condos, selling for $300,000 to $1
million for a unit. "At Chapman Stables, you can embrace a new style
of historic living," the promotional material promises.

"Those people will have no idea what this used to look like. It's all
about money. Money, money, money," said Jerome, before whirring off to
meet Fatboy.

The crack scourge largely stayed in the inner city. There were lots of
headlines about pregnant addicts and crack babies. Even for them,
prosecution was more often the solution over treatment.

Today, an average of 115 people die every day from an opioid overdose,
most of them white and many in rural and suburban communities,
according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black
people are dying of overdoses, too, some from heroin and others from
cocaine, but you do not hear much about it.

"The black/white thing? Sure, I can go there," said Barry Bell, 62,
another fixture at Hanover Place. He has battled heroin addiction for
years and has at least 2,000 stories about it, if you have the time to

Yes, he believes America's newfound compassion for the disease of
addiction is a result of the color of addicts' skin.

But you know what? Bell says, "So what?"

"As long as they have the programs, it's all good," said Bell, a
graduate of many drug treatment programs. "Don't cut the programs.
They keep people alive and out of the penitentiary."

Had President Bush spoken of addiction as an illness -- rather than a
crime -- all those years ago, hundreds of thousands of lives might
look different today.

Only now, because those dying in this epidemic look like the children
and grandchildren of those in power, are we finally applying some
compassion and common sense to addiction.

Too little, too late? Yes.

Infuriating? Yes.

But is it progress? Yes, at long last.

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Petula Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist.
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