Bishop Highlights Racial Disparity In U.S. Approach To Addiction

By Victoria Kim 11/25/15

Bishop Talbert Swan is fighting back against the racial undertones of the war on drugs.

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When a Hampden County, Mass., law enforcement officer gave testimony at a statehouse hearing in Boston earlier this month, his choice of words to describe the opioid epidemic did not sit well with the president of the Greater Springfield NAACP.

Nick Cocchi, the deputy chief of security at the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, was providing testimony before the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which was fielding people’s reactions to Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed opioid legislation, which would allow hospitals to hold patients for involuntary treatment and limit the amount of opioid painkillers doctors can prescribe.

“What was once the heroin junkie in the dark inner-city back alley has now become brother, sister, mom, dad, son and daughter. It’s hit suburbia, USA,” Cocchi said during the hearing.

For Bishop Talbert Swan, who lost a close relative to an overdose, that so-called “heroin junkie” was a beloved family member “even before opioid addiction became prevalent among whites in the suburbs.” He said it’s important to him that state lawmakers and people everywhere understand this.

The humane treatment of addicts is, of course, a welcome change, the bishop said. But Cocchi’s remarks, which “contained racially coded language,” reflect the thinking of many Americans, which neglects the racial nature of the inhumane war on drugs.

“While in many ways this is a welcomed shift in the law enforcement response to drug use, it begs the question as to why earlier calls by African-Americans for this more empathic approach were largely ignored when those needing help with addiction were people of color,” he said.

Instead of legislation to expand addiction treatment, communities of color were hit by harsh prison sentences, zero tolerance policies, and racial profiling which has led to mass incarceration and contributed to the devastation of black communities nationwide, said Swan.

Cocchi’s comment is a reminder of “the racial nature of how drug addiction has been viewed through the years,” said the bishop. “When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas—or as Cocchi put it, ‘the dark inner city’—the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences.”

The changing face of opioid addiction has ushered in a new era of tolerance and understanding. That’s progress. But according to the bishop, the mentality projected by Cocchi is just another example of deep-seated racial disparity in the United States.

“While many continue to deny it, the varying responses to the drug epidemic is further proof of America’s deep racial divide,” Swan said.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr