By David Dancy
Forty six years ago in June 1971, President of The United States, Richard Nixon declared The War On Drugs. It would mark the beginning of a campaign of policies aimed at supposedly reducing the number of addicts and dealers of illegal narcotics. Since its inception the burden placed upon communities by this ‘war’ has always fallen on the shoulders of poor and minorities. These being the groups traditionally impacted by the demons of addiction.
According to an article in The New York Daily News (5/22/16) this was no accident, domestic policy Chief for Richard Nixon , John Ehrlichman, admitted The War On Drugs was a policy tool used to go after the anti-war protectors for pot and ‘Black people’ in general but specifically for heroin.
The First wave in the drug war was aimed toward narcotics like heroin which had devastated the inner city and created a successful counter culture of drug dealers and users. The Government was so successful with interdiction that they literally cut the supply off creating a crisis for addicts suffering from withdrawal. Since the mid-sixties Doctors throughout New York State had used methadone to reduce cravings and ease withdrawals for heroin abusers
The first methadone treatment facilities opened during this era. It seemed the United States Government won the first major battle against drugs, but failed to treat the symptoms and causes of addiction. Choosing a replacement therapy instead. To many critics this solution meant The War wasn’t meant to be won but merely controlled.
During the seventies cocaine had taken over the top spot for illegal narcotics. During the disco era it firmly entrenched itself into the lives of young Americans. It has come to be known that during this period the CIA dropped crack cocaine into the inner cities. Penalties for this highly addictive drug, almost exclusive to Blacks, were made to be exponentially high than that of powdered cocaine, the choice of the White elite.
The War on Drugs, started by Nixon, had taken a temporary backseat in the minds of Americans. On October 14, 1982 Nancy Reagan, First Lady of The United States, declared her own war on drugs. Her weapon of choice was a simple message that has been repeated a million times since and was cemented into the minds of an entire generation (X): ‘Just Say No’.
The punitive, heavy handed approach to the disease of addiction led by ‘The War on Drugs’ has been a disastrous parade of policies that have made millions of Americans criminals for choosing to put certain substances into their bloodstream. The demand for these substances has also made criminals out of the people that supply them. To critics, The War On Drugs has been characterized as a ‘War on Poor People’ or ‘The War on Brown People’ due to its devastating effect on those communities.
Law enforcement throughout the eighties and nineties focused almost all the available resources on Black and Hispanic neighborhoods all over the country, targeting the youngest and most vulnerable members of those communities. Strict laws for and an abundance of rock cocaine and the three strikes laws aimed at repeat felons created a fertile landscape for young cops looking to make busts in the inner city.
The result was an explosive growth in the prison population and subsequent generations of Americans raised under the scrutiny of an overzealous Criminal Justice System. While this was underway the now flourishing for-profit prison system was preparing for its weight in gold of Black and Brown men.
There has been lots of attention given to the ongoing opioid crisis. A steady stream of real-life heartbreaking stories overflowing with deadly overdoses and neglected kids. Town Hall forums with expert panels and front page stories have dominated the media to create the current consensus. Heroin is and always has been bad so why all the attention now?
Our Western European allies have been successfully dealing with this issue for years and have opted out of locking their citizens up for drugs. Instead they removed the stigma, by decriminalizing opiates and other drugs, and by providing treatment for addicts suffering from dependence..
The nightmare of addiction was looked at as a medical issue and many addicts that were previously unwilling or unable to get help, sought treatment at Government funded clinics resulting in a drop in addiction rates and crimes associated with addiction. Portugal enjoyed a 50% decline in use in a single year.
So why are we so slow to change our approach? What is it about jails and the criminal justice system that keeps us in a spiral that breaks up homes and separates children from their parents? Why didn’t we care as much ten years ago when the current epidemic was just beginning?
Many leaders in The Black Community will simply point to the current victims. “It’s because the addicts are white,” said one local leader who chose to remain anonymous. He continued, “All this compassion is for suburban white kids who have been caught up… mommy and daddy are wringing their hands.”
The face of addiction is no longer brown. The public shift in how to deal with the problem has changed with the image of ‘the addict’. Where there was once disdain and merciless punishment we now have a wave of compassion, understanding and a search for solutions. May 31, 2017 Republican Lieutenant Governor of Ohio, Mary Taylor, admitted two of her sons suffer from opioid dependence. Twenty-six year old Joe and twenty-three year old Michael will probably do more to change the landscape of treatment vs Incarceration than any legislator has in the last five years.