race and addiction

Race and Addiction: Stomping on Stereotypes


In the wake of the racial tension spiraling from alleged police brutality on two black male victims, another subtle question is also brimming the stirred pot of stereotype and racial profiling: are race and addiction correlated?

Although people from all walks of life seek treatment and counseling for their substance abuse problems every year, there are still many misconceptions as to which gender, race, and social class is affected most by substance abuse, especially within minority communities.

In an article published in The Atlantic, “How White Users Made Heroin a Public-Health Problem,” the article analyzed America’s response to a drug epidemic affecting Caucasian users just as much, if not more, than minority users.

“The response to the rise in heroin use follows patterns we’ve seen over decades of drug scares. When the perception of the user population is primarily people of color, then the response is to demonize and punish,” said Marc Mauer in the article, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a group that targets racial disparities in the criminal-justice system.

“When it’s white, we search for answers,” he said.

Mauers comments on the recent opioid epidemic, which according to Vice News, affects mostly whites between the ages of 25 to 35, reflect a deep racial divide in the way drug policies and treatment is enforced in the US.

What the Crack Epidemic of the ’80s Taught Us About Race and Addiction

To unravel this sort of conglomerated mass of tangled minority, racism and substance abuse relations, there is no better decade to revisit than the 1980s.

In the ’80s, inner city neighborhoods were being flooded with a new, and cheaper drug craze: crack-cocaine.

The rock form of the powdery white substance that had once been affiliated with the crème de la crème of Hollywood’s elite and rich white college students in the 1970s had become the most dangerous and addictive drug in impoverished and minority neighborhoods.

In response to the epidemic affecting young and older blacks and Hispanics alike, the government passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986 in which people caught with crack were getting far harsher sentences than those caught with cocaine.

Exactly 30 years since the federal act was passed, minority communities and families are still left deprived of the effects of extended jail time and police militia.

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), African Americans now make up nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population.

In an article published by the Huffington Post titled, “When It Comes to Illegal Drug Use, White America Does the Crime, Black America Gets The Time,” the statistics on the amount of blacks and Latinos being arrested for drug-related charges were disparaging in comparison to whites.

According to a 2011 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly 20 percent of whites have used cocaine in comparison to 10 percent of blacks and Latinos.

Yet, the article reported an alarming fact from a 2009 report from the advocacy group Human Rights Watch: blacks are arrested for drug possession nearly three times as often as whites.

Still, some researchers have negated the scandal between the discrepancy of drug use and race saying that it had less to do with race and more to do with the drug’s effects on criminal activities in certain neighborhoods.

“The race issue isn’t just that the judge is going, ‘oh, black man, I’m gonna sentence you higher,’” said Jamie Fellner, author of the Human Rights Watch report, in the Huffington Post article.

“It was instantly addictive, it created ‘superpredators,’ you became a sexual deviant, especially if you were a woman, it destroyed maternal instincts,” Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia University professor who has studied criminal justice and race, said in The Atlantic article.

As the government and officials are paying more close attention to the opiate epidemic, their response has an obvious emphasis on treatment rather than criminalizing illegal “pill poppers.”

In May 2016, the House passed a package of bills targeting the heroin and opioid epidemic. The bipartisan bills included an inter-agency task force to update standards for doctors to manage their patients’ pain, and state-funding to ensure infants born from opioid-addicted mothers received the proper care they needed, according to USA Today.

“This historic package of anti-drug bills will deliver critical funds to address the heroin and opiates, support our loved ones on their path to recovery, and slow the flow of drugs into our country,” said Rep. Vern-Buchanan, R-Fla, in the USA Today article.

Looking Beneath the Surface of Race and Addiction

According to a 2016 report published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), communities of color tend to experience a “greater burden of mental and substance use disorders” because of lack of health care and access to proper care, and environmental and social factors.

The report took a closer look at how African Americans, along with American Indians and Hispanics, are really being damaged by drug abuse and lack of health care.

In 2014, the rate of illegal drug use in African Americans ages 12 and up was 12.4 percent, a 2.2 percent increase from the national average of 10.2 percent.

The rate of binge drinking in the African American community almost mirrored the national average. The rate of blacks ages 12 and up binge drinking was 21.6 percent, in comparison to the national average of 23 percent.

American Indians had surpassed the national youth drinking rate with 14.3 percent of their youths reporting binge drinking in comparison to the national average of 13.8 percent.

In 2014, 8.8 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives ages 18 and up had a co-occurring, past-year mental and substance use disorder, while the national average was reported at 3.3 percent, according to SAMHSA.

With minorities making up nearly 38 percent of America’s population, heavily condensed neighborhoods of minority populations tend to see more severe effects of drug use because of complex racial and poverty issues.

In layman’s terms: Numbers make a difference.

But there may be a crack hidden in the belief that minorities are more destructive than whites when it comes to substance abuse.

For instance, let’s compare the effects of the crack epidemic of minority communities to the opioid and heroin epidemic of Caucasian communities.

When crack first rose to prominence in cities such as Harlem, Miami, and Oakland, the black community had just experienced a revolutionary revamp of their identities and social equality. The 1960s was riddled with the Civil Rights Movement, and the 1970s introduced the raised clenched fist and the afro-daunting symbolism of the black power movement.

Still, in 1977, blacks were still experiencing poverty and housing discrimination in areas such as Los Angeles, Calif, according to Calisphere, University of California’s digital library. Almost a decade later, crack would provide a cheaper and faster way for the black community to temporarily escape their desolate reality.

Freakonomics, a publication began by New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner, estimated the number of years that black communities were devastated by the drug—numbers still affecting those very same communities.

“While crack use was hardly a black-only phenomenon, it hit black neighborhoods much harder… After decades of decline, black infant mortality began to soar in the 1980s, as did the rate of low-birthweight babies and parent abandonment.”- Freakonomics

“The gap between black and white schoolchildren widened. The numbers of blacks sent to prison tripled. Black Americans were hurt more by crack cocaine than any other single cause since the Jim Crow,” according to the Freakonomics blog post.

The passage went on to describe how crime rates had quadrupled in black neighborhoods. As we know today, the stigma associated with dangerous, and threatening crack addicts caused the government to react fast and with no holds barred.

Today, as we witness the government’s response to this new drug epidemic, let’s examine how opioids are affecting the US population.

The abuse of opiates dates back to the 1800s when morphine was used as a pain reliever for soldiers and hospital patients. In that same century, heroin was born and advertised as a legal substance in America, according to The Atlantic.

Two centuries later, pharmaceuticals were just as easy to access as a Spice Girls album. Young and middle-aged abusers were gaining access to these pills through legal “pill” pharmacies popping up throughout the nation. This time, the drug coverts had a new face. No longer were black drug addicts and sellers hiding out on the corner for their next fix. Mothers, businessmen, college students, and veterans were falling prey to the euphoria of opiates.

As this silent attack snuck up and clenched some of America’s esteemed communities by the neck, there was no real plan on how to attack the problem.

Are the pharmaceuticals the ones to blame? Should doctors have their licensed revoked? Who are the real abusers of these drugs? There was a multitude of questions that needed answers.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), The US makes up 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 75% of prescription drugs. NIDA also reported that in 2010, 8.76 million people were abusing prescription meds.

It has also been reported that opioids are killing more people than any other substance, including crack, in previous decades. According to NIDA, in 2014, more than 1700 young adults ages 18 to 25 overdosed on prescription drugs, making the opioid abuse epidemic the most dangerous in this country’s history.

To further shatter misconceptions about race and addiction, in a National Review article written by David Lapp titled, “The War Zone in White America,” Lapp discuss how heroin is beginning to destroy middle-class white families in a similar fashion to the way crack ravaged the black community.

“Heroin has created a situation where individuals whose family members are on heroin have constant exposure to trauma, drama and layered grief. It’s a recipe for post-traumatic stress disorder,” Lapp quoted from a Cincinnati Enquirer interview with physician Jeremy Engel.

To foreshadow the future, white families are going to feel the sting of the opioid epidemic for generations to come, much like black families are still healing from the scars of crack-cocaine.

Yet, people still seem to be unaware at just how dangerous opioids are because this new epidemic challenges addiction perceptions and politics in the US.

Universal Treatment Access Can Help Drug Abuse

Although addiction and race make for an in-depth discussion on race relations and its effects on equal treatment access, there are ways that people can focus on just the addiction outside of prejudices.

Today, many organizations are solving the problems of discrepancies with drug offenders by pushing the notion that treatment is more influential and cheaper than jail time.

According to the Justice Policy Institute’s report, “Treatment or Incarceration?” Maryland’s new laws to place drug offenders in treatment rather than jail is already saving the state money. Their use of alternative sanctions for drug offenders has decreased from $20,000 to $4,000. Also, Brooklyn is providing another example about the importance of equal treatment access for all substance abusers.

The Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) has also saved the city a fair amount of funding and has reduced crime rates. According to the study, the amount spent on a participant in the program was almost $33,000 in comparison to the average cost of $64,000, if the participant had spent 25 months in prison.

Race and Addiction Can Be Discussed at Aloft Recovery

At Aloft Recovery we are making diverse treatment accessible to all who are struggling with substance abuse. If you, or a loved one, is struggling with an addiction, then our center can help you recover with integrity. Call our center today at (844)-318-0072.

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