Dozens of studies conducted over the last several decades have demonstrated unequivocally that drug use rates are remarkably consistent across racial groups. In other words, Blacks and whites use drugs at the same rates.
What differs is the kinds of the drugs they use and the public reaction to this drug use.
There is no scientific evidence to support the claim that crack is more dangerous than opioids, as both drugs are addictive, both can lead to overdose deaths, and both can lead to an increase in crimes that addicts commit to support their habits. And babies are born addicted to crack and opioids, the only difference is their mother’s drug of choice.
And, yet, the community response, in hospitals and police departments around the country, and even in the hall of congress is decidedly different. White people have an addiction problem and Black people have a crime problem.
Congress’s approach to the crack epidemic was to dump hundreds of millions of dollars into policing, and as a result, the incarcerated population in the United States tripled between 1986 and 2000 and the number of people incarcerated on drug charges increased by a massive 8 times. This policing approach extended to mothers addicted to crack as well.
In her influential book, killing the black body, Dorothy Roberts argues persuasively that crack became an easy target for the War on Drugs. And, low-income Black women became the “poster child” providing a powerful and visual rationale for this war. Chief among their major offenses was delivering babies addicted to crack. “Crack babies” quickly became of primary concern to policy makers, not necessarily because they were addicted to crack per-se, but because of the perceived, but not necessarily substantiated claim of the burden they would place on society. A burden that could have been avoided had their mothers simply behaved responsibly, at least according to the instigators of the “War on Drugs,” including Presidents Nixon and Reagan. And, thus began the policy of criminalizing pregnancy. Black women who delivered babies with even a trace of crack in their system were sent to prison, convicted of child endangerment, for long sentences.
In contrast, Congress’s approach to the opioid epidemic, which differs only from the crack epidemic in that the typical user has a lighter complexion and lives in suburban or rural area, has been to declare that the primary problem is not crime but addiction. And, rather than sending hundreds of millions of dollars to police departments, the monies are diverted to hospitals that can provide treatment for addicts and the babies they deliver. Some money is even given over for research.
The new US Senate -healthcare bill under consideration has a line item for opioids with a dollar figure at $45 billion for opioid addiction treatment. This package of money is headed to states like Ohio (Ohio’s Montgomery County is now the per-capita leader in overdose deaths) and Pennsylvania, especially the rural areas where the population is mainly white.
According to sources reporting to the New York Times, most of the money would go to addiction treatment, but some would be used to fund research into better treatments for pain and addiction.
According the New York Times, doctors are now “rethinking” their approach to treating babies born addicted to opioids. They have found, not surprisingly, that when babies are separated from their mothers, they require more significant treatment, often low doses of morphine, and much longer stays in neo-natal ICUs. In contrast, some hospitals in rural Kentucky have experimented with allowing mothers to “room in” with their newborns and not surprisingly, the babies, in the supportive arms of their often still addicted mother, respond more quickly, few require morphine treatment, and they go home, on average, 3 weeks earlier.
And, this is fantastic.
But it’s quite a contrast to the experience of 28 year-old Cornelia Whitner, as detailed in Dorothy Roberts book, who in February 1992 gave birth to a healthy baby. Upon conducting a urine test on the baby, traces of crack were discovered. The baby was healthy and in her court hearing Whitner begged to be sentenced to a residential treatment program in order to address her addiction and become a good parent. The Judge responded “I think I’ll just let her to go to jail.’ He sentenced her to a startling 8 year sentence.
Finally, when we look at the decades’ comparisons between the approach to Black addicts and the 2015-2016-2017 approach to white addicts we see an alarming pattern: treat whites as in need of treatment and rehabilitation and treat Blacks as criminals.
Perhaps as many as a half a million Black people are incarcerated for low-level drug offenses, they are addicts, while the same addiction among whites has police departments welcoming them into local precincts to turn over their drugs and be transported safely, without handcuffs or criminal records, to local hospitals specializing in the latest rehabilitation techniques.
When, we ask, will Black drug use be treated as an addiction and not a crime? When will we stop ripping Black babies out of their mothers arms and sending the mothers to prison and the babies to foster care? When we will we treat addiction equally regardless of the complexion of the user?
The War on Drugs in Black and White.
To read more: see our upcoming book, Policing Black Bodies!