For the longest time, addicts were divided into two groups. White people drank and abused prescription medication and black and brown people did street drugs. White people drugged and boozed in their own homes behind a facade of respectability and black and brown people scored drugs on the streets to feed their addictions. Law enforcement punished the latter and consigned them to a life of recidivists and turned a blind eye to the former. Society at large had more sympathy for alcoholics and prescription drug abusers because, well, they are procured legally and alcoholism has been around since the substance was invented. Society treated street drug addicts like criminals, and if you sold drugs to other drug addicts, you are not just a criminal, you are scum, corrupting the community.
During the Crack Epidemic of the 1980s, as a whole generation of inner city youth threw their lives away on drugs, law enforcement not only didn’t help them but punished them further by making the sentence for crack cocaine possession more punitive than powdered cocaine (which, coincidentally or not, was what yuppie white people snorted). This wasn’t corrected until 2010 with the Fair Sentencing Act. The War on Drugs was a war on the poor inner city youth. It was a war on impoverished and underprivileged black and brown people who needed help and guidance and not prison sentence.
The scourge of drugs was seen as an inner city problem, an impoverished, underprivileged black and brown problem and the solution is to lock them up. It is far far away from the white suburbs. Far away from middle-class respectability for it to be a real concern. Now poor white people are drugging themselves to death prematurely and the opioid addiction has reached the suburbs where the white granny who lives in that cute house around the corner is found with a needle sticking out of her arm. Even in squeaky clean Utah, where drinking alcohol, coffee and teas are banned, there’s a prescription drug abuse problem. Prescription drugs falls under that gray category of medicine prescribed by a doctor, so it’s good for your body, therefore it doesn’t violate Mormon rules. The problem isn’t just among teens and young adults, there is prescription drug abuse among housewives, working professionals, even people 55 and over.
In middle America, heroin abuse stemming from prescription opioids has reached epidemic levels. It’s not just confined to big inner cities anymore. In a recent 60 Minutes report (aired Nov. 1), postcard farming towns, dotted with pretty barns and sprawling homes, in the middle of Ohio is experiencing a heroin abuse and overdose crisis. When junkies look like the all-American girl next door, people stood up and took notice. Parents broke the veil of shame and silence and banded together with law enforcement to help solve this crisis. The coastal town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, the only town in America to grant asylum to drug addicts. Police will not arrest someone in possession of drugs and instead will offer them help instead. The state of Kentucky, home of horse breeding and all that come with it is facing a heroin epidemic as well, the state recently passed new laws to move away from the punitive measures to deal with drug addiction and focus on treatment, healing and recovery instead.
Only now, it’s considered a national crisis, an emergency. People have been overdosing and dying from drug abuse for decades, but it’s the wrong kind of people for society to care.
The medical community has long acknowledged addiction is a disease, it’s an illness which requires treatment under supervision of medical professionals. An addict cannot be left to their own devices and expect them to miraculously get and stay clean. To help a person maintain their sobriety requires a team of people, not least of all the patient himself. Yet, before the drug problem spread to the pristine suburbs of America, before the scourge attacked white people, no one cared to get the addicted people treatment. Law enforcement just arrest them, lock them up, release them when their time is up and then they go back to using and the cycle repeats itself until the addict is out of options and is locked up forever.
One doesn’t need to be an addiction medicine specialist to know that an addict is an addict, it doesn’t matter if you are an addict behind mansion gates or the streets of Skid Row, the end result will be the same if the addict doesn’t get treatment and stay in treatment. The War on Drugs was a colossal waste of money, all that money spent hunting down Mexican drug cartels could have been spent treating people with addiction. If there is no demand, supply will be diminished or the presence of the supply won’t be as tempting.
The Reagan ‘Just Say No’ campaign is equally hare brained. Not all drug users become drug addicts, not all drinkers become alcoholics, people use drugs at various times in their lives for many different reasons. When they are young, it’s peer pressure, wanting to appear cool in school. Older people may use drugs and alcohol to alleviate emotional pain or mental anguish. Some people stop using drugs on their own and continue with their lives. Some people use drugs recreationally on weekends when partying or blowing off steam with their friends. And you hear about the people who take one hit of whatever and they knew right then and there they are addicted. Sometimes it’s recreational use which then got out of control, sometimes it’s a deliberate attempt to mask the pain in their lives. But, telling kids to ‘just say no’ makes them want it even more.
There is no silver bullet to solving the addiction problem. If Western society has a downfall, it’s addiction and the havoc it wreaks. Drugs are ever more cheaper, more potent and on every street corner, even in middle America. The one thing that doesn’t work is punishing drug addict in hopes the punishment will scare them off drugs. What’s clear now is drug and alcohol treatment needs to be a federal nationwide effort. We can no longer leave it to individual states and municipalities to deal with the drug problem. All the money that’s being allocated to build prisons is better spent at treating addicts, so that they don’t go to prison.
The actor Charlie Sheen just revealed he is HIV positive and has been for some time. No doubt his lifestyle of drugs and unsafe sex caught up with him. He’s just turned 50 years old, but decades of drug and alcohol abuse has clearly caught up with him, it’s written in his eyes and face. He’s lucky to be alive. He’s been given more second chances in a fickle town known for kicking you when you are down than any of his peers. He has 5 children yet he can’t find the reserves in himself to try and beat his addiction.
Robert Downey Jr. was a notorious drug user, he was arrested and sent to prison. After he got out of prison he had a role lined up for him already, a guest starring role on the hit show Ally McBeal – which he was great in, it was the only reason I watched the show. He relapsed during filming and was arrested again, but he went to rehab and stayed clean. He was able to collect his Golden Globe Award and made a few jokes about his recent incarcerations. He’s been clean since, his career soared to stratospheric heights, he remarried, had more children and is light years away from that wild eyed drug addicted youth. His wife, Susan Downey says she doesn’t know who ‘that’ Robert Downey Jr. is, she’s never met the crazy drug addict, when people tell her stories about his past, she’s shocked (and very naive). So recovery, with the right support, can be done but it’s a choice that has to come from the addict themselves.
At the end of the 60 Minutes broadcast, Bill Whitaker asked Tracy Morrison, the mother of a heroin addicted child:
Bill Whitaker: I’m sure there are some who would be watching this and would say, “Heroin addicts are junkies and they brought this on themselves, so why should we care?”
Tracy Morrison: Because we don’t throw diabetics who sit on the couch eating Bon Bons and smoke and they weigh 300 pounds in prison. We don’t belittle them and there’s not a big stigma; we don’t do that to people that chain smoke and develop lung cancer. It’s a chronic relapsing brain disease, period, amen, end of story and we need to accept it– even if it makes people uncomfortable. And if people don’t like that, I’m sorry.
Tracy Morrison is right, however, it took her daughter, a white upper-class American girl next door becoming a drug addict for people to sit up and pay attention. Black and Latinos have been suffering from drug addiction for decades and everyone turned a blind eye to their suffering and locked them up instead. Drug addiction only got the attention it deserved because white people are becoming addicted.