When White People Take Drugs, It Stops Being a “War”

Chalk up another piece of evidence for the longstanding notion that the nation’s “War on Drugs” is simply another aspect of institutionalized racism: it seems that now that heroin addiction is raging through white middle-class families, the nation’s appetite for tough-on-crime tactics is waning.

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.

“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered,” said Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, better known as the nation’s drug czar. “They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”

Apologists can try to claim that the racial disparity in understanding and treatment of the problem is due to people with more power having the ability to change the conversation.

But given the history of the enforcement of the drug war in the United States–starkly and painfully exemplified in the hysteria over “crack cocaine”–it’s a difficult stance to take.

The evidence suggests, rather, that American public policy has been centered around harsh punishment of populations that were at first openly and then more quietly assumed to be naturally subhuman and more prone to violence than whites. Racism, in other words. The drug war is another reflection of that same mentality. A large number of Americans harboring racial prejudice have an image of minority communities seething with chaos just under the thin veneer of civilization, with barbarism ready to strike at any moment in a toxic stew of drugs, handouts violence and uncouth music. The response is a war on drugs, tough-on-crime laws, hatred of taxes, and arsenals of guns for “protection.”

It’s no surprise, then, that when white people do drugs it’s not seen as the same kind of threat–because in minds of far too many Americans it’s not really the drug that is the problem, but the ability of the drug to release the supposedly natural tendencies of certain types of people. The same is true of guns: when a white person carries a gun they’re a patriot; when a black person does it they’re a criminal thug. Because it’s not about the gun, it’s about the person carrying it.

Racists don’t see this as a form of racism. They see it as a form of common sense. But it’s racism through and through. And unfortunately even for the racists, their public policy reactions in terms of gun proliferation, poor public safety nets and harsh criminal justice systems hurt not only minority communities but white ones as well.

America will make progress as a society only when we can move beyond these prejudices and realize that we’re all the same underneath, and we need policies of tolerance and understanding that reflect that fact.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.