Everyone agrees that drug abuse is bad. Drug policy, however, has become more contested in recent years, as the “War on Drugs”1 has been more widely seen for the racially motivated garbage that it is.2 This can be seen in the changing attitudes towards drug enforcement in the wake of the white, middle class heroin epidemic:
When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.
And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.
It’s good that the approach is changing, but why weren’t non-white, non-poor voices heard?
A generation ago when civil rights activists denounced as racist the push to punish crack-cocaine crimes, largely involving blacks, far more severely than powder-cocaine crimes, involving whites, political figures of both parties defended those policies as necessary to control violent crime.
But today, with heroin ravaging largely white communities in the Northeast and Midwest, and with violent crime largely down, the mood is more forgiving.
Here in Canada, we’re primarily racist against indigenous people rather than African American people, and it shows in that Aboriginals make up 23% of the federal prison population, despite only making up 4% of the general population. This ratio has also gotten steadily worse due to the mandatory minimums introduced by the recently ousted Conservative governement.
In the language of my recent drug addiction post, it’s time to stop punishing people living in a cage by making their cage even smaller. There’s no hope of that ever working, and it only deepens the racial and economic divides that need healing.
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