Discussion of Drug Addiction: Is It All About Race?

By: Matthew Ryan

During the Presidential primary season, one public health issue has gotten particular attention: heroin drug addiction. Candidates from both parties have spoken eloquently and passionately about the need to resolve drug addiction with public health solutions. The current language and proposals are far different from tough law-and-order rhetoric from the 1980s during the cocaine addiction epidemic. These differences should not be overlooked: they should inform how race impacts our perceptions as both public health practitioners and policy-makers.

In a post on Medium, Jeb Bush spoke vulnerably about his daughter’s heroin addiction. He wrote, “As a father, I have felt the heartbreak of drug abuse. I never expected to see my precious daughter in jail… She went through hell… and so did I.”

Carly Fiorina has also spoken powerfully about losing her stepdaughter to drug addiction. In an email to supporters, she was emphatic, “If you’re criminalizing drug abuse and addiction, you’re not treating it—and you’re part of the problem.”

Even Chris Christie, a former U.S. Attorney intimately involved with the criminal justice system, gave a rousing speech defending a public health approach to drug addiction. Christie spoke about a friend from law school who died from drug addiction. At the end of the speech he universalized the problem, “It can happen to anyone. And so we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them.”

Mr. Bush, Ms. Fiorina, and Mr. Christie deserve a lot of credit (as do the many other candidates who have spoken to the issue). They have spoken with terrific moral courage, and by admitting we should treat drug addiction as a health problem—not a criminal one—I believe they have committed to ending the war on drugs. These proposals, and evolution, should not be taken for granted.

But our politicians’ evolution over the last thirty years should lead us to ask a critical question: why do we view public policy issues that impact people of color differently than issues that impact white people?

The “War on Drugs” and its disproportionate impact on persons of color are well-documented. Knowing that, we must wonder what explains the change over the last few decades? From a President that called drug abuse “a menace” and “public enemy number one,” and a Congress that overwhelmingly favored minimum mandatory sentences and disproportionately criminalized crack addiction, our view of drug addiction has changed quite a bit.

Why? Well one contributing factor may be that heroin is predominately a white person problem. In fact, almost 90 percent of new heroin users are white.

Now that drug addiction effects people that look more like our politicians (and myself), does that make our solutions more humane? If so, what does that say about what drives our policies when it is people that don’t look like us? And how can we change that?

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