How race colors our view of drugs

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    (Photo courtesy of ShutterStock)

    Many years ago, when I was in graduate school, a professor asked me why Americans feared some drugs more than others. Timidly, I mumbled something about the dangers of addiction.

    My professor smiled, in the knowing but slightly patronizing way that teachers correct their students. “It’s not about the drug,” he said. “It’s about who uses it.”

    I’ve been thinking about his comment as our presidential candidates sojourn through New Hampshire, which is in the midst of the worst heroin epidemic in its history. Whereas earlier generations of politicians demanded stiffer penalties for heroin use, our current crop is emphasizing treatment and prevention.

    That was the theme of a forum on heroin addiction last Tuesday in Hooksett, N.H., where five Republican candidates called for a kinder, gentler approach. And there’s one big reason for that: most of the heroin addicts in New Hampshire are white.

    So were 90 percent of Americans who tried heroin for the first time over the past decade. Use has risen especially sharply in rural and suburban areas, which have also witnessed a steep spike in addiction to opiate-derived painkillers. So politicians are more forgiving towards heroin and other opiates than they were in the past, when the drug was more strongly concentrated in urban and minority communities.

    Ironically, the first wave of opiate addiction in the United States was also a predominantly white affair. In the late 1800s, doctors prescribed morphine to Civil War veterans to relieve what we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder. Opium-based products also became popular among well-to-do women afflicted with “neurasthenia,” or weak nerves.

    Some women even wore necklaces made out of hypodermic syringes, which briefly became a high-society fad. As one medical instrument dealer reported enthusiastically, morphine injections offered not just “great service in the alleviation of pain” but also a “convenient sort of respectable intoxication.”

    But opiates lost their elite sheen in the early 20th century, as Civil War veterans died out and physicians discovered more about the dangers of addiction. The drug became associated with working-class hoodlums and especially with Chinese immigrants, whose “opium dens” were luridly denounced in the popular press as dark, forbidding places of filth and sin.

    Cocaine also began as a drug consumed mainly by the white middle class in concoctions like Coca-Cola, which was developed by a Civil War veteran who hoped to recreate the success of cocaine-laced wines in Europe. When his native Georgia prohibited alcohol in the 1880s, he removed the booze and promoted Coca-Cola as a “temperance drink.”

    It still had cocaine, of course. But that didn’t become a problem until Coca-Cola started bottling the drink in 1899, giving African-Americans—who were barred from segregated soda fountains—easy access to it. Soon newspapers began to report that “negro cocaine fiends” were raping white women, creating a new association between the drug and a feared minority. Coca-Cola removed cocaine from its formula in 1903, adding sugar and caffeine instead.

    Then there was marijuana, which was rarely discussed or denounced until the big waves of Mexican immigration in the 1930s. Newspapers started to run vivid accounts of “Mexican dope,” which farm migrants were allegedly foisting on unaware white adolescents. Predictably, the federal government passed its first marijuana regulation in 1937. 

    Marijuana retained its dangerous veneer into the 1960s and 1970s, when it became linked to “hippies” and other young rebels from the baby-boom generation. Now it’s widely used by Americans of every background, so we shouldn’t be surprised that states and localities are decriminalizing or legalizing it.

    To be sure, no one in the presidential contest is talking about legalizing heroin. But the surge in whites’ use of it surely helps explain the new sympathy for drug addicts, especially among Republicans. Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz have all spoken about their own family members’ struggles with narcotics. And in a New Hampshire campaign talk that went viral last fall, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said that heroin addicts deserved treatment for the same reason that his nicotine-dependent mother received chemotherapy.

    Never mind that Christie has presided over a 12 percent increase in New Jersey’s petty arrests for marijuana possession, which disproportionately affect urban and minority offenders. And let’s not forget the disparate jail sentences for powder and crack cocaine. Whites are more likely to use the former, and blacks the latter. Guess which one typically draws a stiffer penalty? 

    It’s great to see politicians of both parties showing more solicitude for our new legions of mostly white heroin addicts, who need all the help they can get. But so do the many thousands of racial minorities hooked on drugs or jailed under our failed “war” on them. As treatment professionals often remind us, drug addiction doesn’t know or respect color. Too bad so many of our drug policies still do.   

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