Drugs

America Only Started Caring About the Opioid Epidemic When It Hit Suburbia

Only when the victims are white does our government pay attention.

Photo Credit: Steve Heap / Shutterstock

President Trump recently declared the opioid epidemic a public emergency.

But drug abuse has been a public emergency in inner cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York for decades.

The crisis was just under another name—crack cocaine.

For 35 years, crack-cocaine has been the center of attention in my family and my community.  Since I can remember, I have seen crack cocaine chopped, smoked, and sold. I have seen my family rob elderly people to get a fix. I have seen a person get pushed out of a window, sixteen stories high, in downtown Los Angeles, because she owed money to her dealer. The final moments before death are harsh—that woman was scrambling for breaths. I’ll never forget the rise and fall of her chest.  

We were living in the Frontier Hotel on Skid Row, where drug abuse was rampant. I was on my way to elementary school when I witnessed this woman fall to her demise. This is common practice, a dealer killing an addict who owes money. Many people fell, but I survived because I saw the ramifications of drug abuse—death.  

My relatives have abused crack cocaine, have been killed for crack cocaine, and have been incarcerated for crack cocaine, and nobody signed a bill nor ignited a sense of urgency due to a crack-cocaine epidemic.

Instead, people in my community were called predators and criminals. There was no leniency. Some of these people are still rotting in prison because they had an addiction.

And now we’re are suggesting treatment because this epidemic has reached suburbia.  

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the judicial system imposed minimum mandatory federal prison sentences—a predetermined term for certain crimes. Possession and distribution of crack-cocaine was one of these crimes. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, more popularly known as the War of Drugs, made drug abuse less rehabilitative but punitive.

This led to mass incarceration across the nation, predominantly in the black community. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, prison incarceration increased by 800 percent due to this excessive sentencing.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession of crack cocaine.

Yes, drugs like crack cocaine are illegally distributed through street pharmacists, and drugs like oxycodone are legally prescribed from doctors. But both substances are an opioid and millions of people in the U. S. are addicted.

So why does one merit the reference public emergency epidemic and the other merit the reference as criminalized behavior?  Let’s stop polarizing addiction based off of one’s skin color, ethnic background, and/or economic status.

Again, like the 1980’s, we are classifying opioids according to which group of people are likely to abuse the substance. In the 1980’s, blacks were most likely to abuse crack cocaine and whites were most likely to abuse powdered cocaine. Because of the War on Drugs, people of color were more likely to be penalized for their addiction.

We see the same thing happening today in differentiating the name and the method of use. It’s all opioid abuse, and somebody is guilty of selling drugs.

When are these doctors going to go to prison for prescribing opioids to long term addicts?

They are no different than the street peddler because everybody is making money off these drugs. It’s all dirty money, just in different redlined zip codes.  

Let’s begin to reconsider some of the people still serving lengthy prison sentences over opioid addiction and distribution, and give them some treatment.

 

Randiesia Fletcher-Riggs is a disabled veteran, a community volunteer, and a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

 
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