Does The Opioid Crisis Have A Racial Bias?

By McCarton Ackerman 07/19/16

A recent Time op-ed addressed the racial bias in the response to the '80s' crack-cocaine epidemic versus the response to the current opiate epidemic.

Does The Opioid Crisis Have A Racial Bias?

A powerful new op-ed in Time suggests that the way police, politicians and communities are handling the current opioid crisis has an intense racial bias to it.

Time contributor and a fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, Hernandez D. Stroud, noted that the majority of opioid addicts are currently white, a stark contrast to the crack cocaine epidemic that infiltrated many African-American communities in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But while he applauds the steps that have been taken to combat the problem as a disease rather than a criminal issue or moral failing, he wondered whether the same approach would be taken if the majority of addicts were minorities.

“We haven’t seen—nor will we ever—an entire generation of white babies be regarded as criminals-in-waiting,” wrote Stroud. “More important, even prosecutors and police officers … who once viewed addicts solely as problems to be locked up, suddenly think they’re ‘people’ who 'have a purpose in life.'”

Stroud specifically focused on pregnant opioid addicts in his piece, lamenting the “mass incarceration of black mothers” during the ‘80s and ‘90s as “reminiscent of slave masters’ control of slave wombs.” This is despite the fact that the during the height of the crack epidemic, drug use was equally as prevalent among white women and the majority of births among African-American women resulted in healthy babies.

Racial bias related to drug use has continued to be a long-standing issue in multiple facets of American life. A 2011 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) showed that with the exception of crack, all other use of illicit drugs among whites was significantly higher than that of African-Americans. Despite this, a May 2014 study out of Notre Dame University showed that the majority of hiring managers believe “Blacks are more likely to fail a drug test.”

Although Stroud supports the current approach towards viewing drug addiction as a disease, he believes the ramifications of treating it as a criminal problem largely focused on African-American communities will continue to remain for the foreseeable future.

“Is today’s compassionate approach … cause for celebration? Of course. But imagine the bitterness perhaps felt by our black sisters, peering from the shadows, who got shackles—even during labor—instead of support,” wrote Stroud. “Their families are still splintered. Their lives are still languishing behind bars. And their babies, who’ve been left pondering whether their lives matter in today’s suffocating environment, are still perceived as problems to be handled.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.