New York Gov. Cuomo Says Current Heroin Crisis ‘Worse Than’ Crack Epidemic

By Zachary Siegel 05/27/16

Should the governor compare these two vastly different epidemics?

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New York Gov. Cuomo Says Current Heroin Crisis ‘Worse Than’ Crack Epidemic

On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo convened a meeting of his “Heroin Task Force” in Staten Island’s predominantly white neighborhood of South Shore, where he told local residents that America’s current opiate crisis is several orders of magnitude worse than the crack epidemic during the ‘80s. 

“We’ve gone through heroin in the '70s, we went through cocaine and crack in the '80s and the '90s. But I think this [is] worse than then,” he said before wary residents. 

Side-by-side, the two epidemics are an apples and oranges comparison. Crack addiction does not cause death in the numbers heroin does, though it brought violence to already stressed neighborhoods. One epidemic resulted in Draconian drug policies, contributing to the disproportionate mass incarceration of minorities, while the other has called for a more “gentle” response. Guess which is which. 

Gov. Cuomo spoke of the 85 Staten Islanders who have died from overdose so far this year. In New York City, there was an 84% increase in heroin overdose deaths between 2010 and 2012, and Staten Island, a predominantly white borough, hasn’t been spared. Though the Bronx, where "minorities" are the majority, currently has the biggest heroin problem out of all the boroughs. 

“The increase in the number of deaths is staggering. This is a drug that is increasing like fire through dry grass. There are a number of reasons why, but that doesn’t change the end result: that we have a public health crisis on our hands, and it’s only getting worse.” 

Unlike the crack epidemic, “This isn’t an inner-city drug crisis,” Cuomo continued, “this is not a poor person crisis, this is not a young person crisis, this is not a downstate crisis. It’s all across the state. It’s in rural areas, it’s in upstate areas, it’s in wealthy areas. It truly is all across the state in its impact, as it is nationwide. And it’s one of the most pervasive drug crises in its impact.”

The ‘80s crack epidemic, on the other hand, was more or less contained to urban areas, densely populated by African Americans. Where the ‘80s crack era sparked fear, the opiate crisis—because it spans racial and class lines—is bringing about compassion. 

Heroin had to move outside of the “inner-city” before families called for gentle policies and politicians called it a public health crisis. To this day, crack possession carries a harsher punishment than powdered cocaine, though they contain the same active ingredient. Crack addiction is still associated with criminality, where heroin use is slowly changing the conversation and how the public sees drug addiction. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.