Today, the Senate tried to sweeten the pot for moderates skeptical about Trumpcare by adding $45 billion dollars to treat opioid addiction. Wait, what? I thought that we were supposed to punish our way out of a drug problem, not treat its victims.
Well, it turns out that draconian drug policy doesn’t apply so much to white folks. What’s the difference between our nation’s history of ramping up drug penalties when we perceive a drug epidemic and the Senate’s response to the opioid problem? Well, maybe, the fact that 90% of new heroin users are white.
The history of American moral panics about drugs is inextricably intertwined with racial prejudice. Popular lore linked Mexicans with marijuana, a “killer weed” that arouses a “lust for blood”. Cocaine, said the New York Times, turns a “hitherto inoffensive Negro” into a crazed, murderous superhuman. Crack cocaine, well. Scholars “almost universally agree that drug scares are constructed in the shadow of great racial scares.”
Our point is not that drugs are good. Our point is that drug panics are explicitly intended as vehicles of racial discrimination. Read Murakawa, and the articles she cites. The response to the opioid problem, a largely white phenomenon, demonstrates the point. While
opioid use increased in White communities, rather than arresting consumers, regulators mandated physicians to use Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, instituted voluntary take-back programs for unused medication, and disseminated the opioid overdose reversal medication naloxone, while passing Good Samaritan laws to protect those calling for emergency assistance during an overdose from drug charges.
So, probably, the opioid problem won’t decouple drug policy from racial politics. And probably, the reason why is that our brains have more empathy for those of the same race. People who abuse (and sell) opioids get funds for treatment. People who abuse (and sell) drugs that been stigmatized by association with minority communities go to jail. We should probably mention this in our sentencings.