From 2000 to 2013, heroin overdose deaths quadrupled in America, rising to 8,260. Part of the reason for this dramatic increase is the accessibility of Opioids, drugs such as Vicodin and OxyContin, through prescriptions which is seen as the gateway to heroin use which is cheaper. The rise of the use and abuse of heroin has hit white Americans the hardest. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly 90 percent of people who have tried heroin for the first time in the past decade were white. Predominantly white states such as New Hampshire have seen the effects of heroin first hand as in 2014 there was a 68 percent increase in overdose deaths from 2013.1 With these numbers on the rise there has been increasing conversation on the national level to address this heroin epidemic. Presidential hopefuls have chimed in calling this a public health issue as our understanding of addiction has become more clear over time and as Senator Bernie Sanders has phrased it, addiction is a disease, not a crime.
Death and addiction from heroin has created a softer response amongst lawmakers and public officials who are urged by the families of overdose victims to treat the epidemic as an epidemic. Calling for more funding in rehab and treatment programs, some police departments have responded by not arresting those who come into a police station and ask for help even if they are carrying drugs or needles. The general tone which has been taken towards heroin users is sympathy and understanding that its users are victims. This tone is a far cry from that which was/is taken towards users and addicts of crack cocaine, who are predominantly minority. Crack cocaine minimum sentencing requirements were enacted in 1986 with the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act, one gram of crack receives five years of prison time while 100 grams of powdered cocaine gives you the same sentence. Although the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 removed the mandatory minimum sentencing and the disparity of punishment for possession amounts between crack and powdered cocaine (now 18 grams of powdered cocaine gives you the same punishment of one gram of crack) the bill still looks at possession and addiction to crack through a criminal sphere. When it comes to crack there has been no public health issue, only a criminal act as oppose to victims of ‘substance use disorder’, even considering the enlightening report by Congressman Charles Rangel in 1991 titled ‘The Crack Cocaine Epidemic: Health Consequences and Treatment’ which discusses crack cocaine abuse as a public health issue and methods of treatment available at the time that did not include jail time.
While we have come a long way in understanding addiction, crack cocaine rehab treatments are rudimentary and medication is non existent. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), currently there are no FDA approved medications to treat cocaine overdose6, however there is a treatment for heroin overdose; naloxone. The NIDA says they are aggressively working towards developing medication to treat cocaine overdose. What the vendetta comes down to is to equally invest and address drug addiction across all demographics of victims and drug types in order to ensure there is no discrimination based on race.
The White House has rolled out an extensive plan on the federal level paired with individual state efforts to address the heroin epidemic. The plan hopes to develop better communication between law enforcement officials and public health officials as the goal is to simultaneously track down distributors while being able to adequately treat victims. States have dedicated more time to training police and fire officials to safely administer naloxone. The Obama administration also pledged $133 million in new spending to better collect data, implement improved treatment programs, and strengthen current programs aimed at preventing prescription drug overdose.
The rise in the use and overdose deaths of heroin is truly unprecedented. While crack cocaine overdose deaths have remained fairly stagnant in recent years, it still predominantly affects minorities. Our vendetta is concerned with keeping a consistency in tone and effort being put forth when treating drug addiction and overdose. The current soft tone towards drug abuse is being applied solely to heroin and Opioid users which are predominantly white. While we cannot retroactively change our tone towards prior drug abuse, we can further prevent how the war on drugs has contributed to mass incarceration in minority communities. First, we must ensure the softer tone towards drug abuse being applied to heroin users is expanded to all victims of drug abuse, no matter the ethnicity of victims nor the communities they live in. For this article crack cocaine was selected and discussed in order to highlight the stark contrast in approach. Secondly, we continue making progress in reforming sentencing disparities among low level nonviolent drug offenders to ensure all victims get treatment, not jail time. In order to do this, funds must be re-appropriated from the prison system to rehab and treatment facilities. The only presidential candidate who has laid out a complete detailed plan on addressing this issue in its entirety is Hillary Clinton. Details of which can be found here.
The tone of how we approach and address drug abuse has been in need of change for some time. Current trends, even if they are selective for the time being, should be applauded in that they are better addressing the victims of drug abuse, offering help and treatment as oppose to jail time for nonviolent offenders. The next step is ensuring all demographics get proper treatment (health and legal), not just a select few.
Take Action: Sign this petition to urge the House of Representatives to pass the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act which is currently being heard in committee to further address the national drug epidemic: Link