(EmergeNewsOnline.com) – I find it difficult to listen to all of the outpouring of concern for the phenomenon of opiate drug addiction, with politicians expressing their desire to find help for these young people before they overdose, and to keep them from destroying their lives, their families’ lives … and their communities.
There was never such an outpouring of concern for those addicted to crack cocaine, no expressed worry about what incarcerating non-violent drug offenders would do to individuals, families and communities. No, in contrast, politicians declared a “war” on drugs, intimating that it was the duty of “the law” to defeat the enemy. That enemy was not the drugs, per se, but those who were unfortunate enough to become addicted. Unfortunately, most of the people who were thrown into prison for crack cocaine addiction were Black, Brown and poor people.
Drug addiction has always been a part of society – all societies. People resort to drug use when they feel hopeless, when poverty overwhelms them, when they see no way out. There are certainly physiological factors that go into becoming addicted, but it seems that the threat of drug addiction is highest when individuals feel like there is no way out of their despair.
Richard Nixon declared the “War on Drugs” in 1971 and one of his top aides’ (John Ehrlichman) admission that the “war” was devised to fight against “Blacks and hippies” comes as no surprise. Nixon wanted to be president, and he had to find a way to capture the Southern White vote. It was unpopular to use racist terms outright, and so politicians had to find a way to cater to White voters’ fear of Black people without using overtly racist words.
The “Southern Strategy” helped them do that. There were words that would resonate with White people, including “entitlements” and “welfare” and “law and order.” In order to keep “law and order,” the “bad people” had to be identified. Drug users would be those people. Street drug users would be criminalized and anyone who pushed for their arrest and incarceration would be hailed as being tough on crime.
That failed. The “War on Drugs” has caused immeasurable damage to individuals, communities and families. This country incarcerates more people than any other modern nation in the world, largely because of the inordinate arrests made by law enforcement officers empowered to lock away Black, Brown and poor people who used drugs.
Although Whites used and continue to use drugs more than African Americans, they were not demonized. They were, in fact, given slaps on the wrist for offenses that earned Black and Brown people literally years in prison. Black people’s lives were considered dispensable and disposable. The sentiment of the majority population was that Black people were bad and “belonged” in prison.
But now things have changed. Now the problem of drug addiction in the White community can no longer be hidden. Now White people, many of them young, are dying of heroin overdoses. The situation has caused a stir; the majority population has been shaken into reality, that drug addiction is not race-specific, and that it kills good people. Now, politicians are upset and are crying for drug policies that emphasize drug addiction as a public health problem.
Meanwhile, far too many Black people are locked up because of their drug use and many who are finally released from prison are so unable to “make it” once released that they end up back in jail.
Yes, I am angry.
But there are people on the ground, in this nation and all over the world, who are working to change drug policy. There will be a gathering of faith leaders in New York at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session April 18 through April 21, who will work to draft statements and initiatives to be presented to legislators. The faith leaders, convened by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference Inc., and other drug policy advocates and activists, believe that current drug policies are racist, draconian and inhumane. They are pushing for lawmakers to abandon their resolve to make drug users criminals – which most are not.
The fact that there is an outcry about the inhumanity of making those addicted to drugs criminals has come at a propitious moment. In this country, issues become “problems” only when the majority population is adversely affected – or when the majority population can no longer hide its participation and complicity in major social problems. Drug use is a social problem from which the majority population can no longer run.
I, for one, am glad.
Rev. Susan K Smith is an ordained minister and is the founder of Crazy Faith Ministries.