For years, we’ve been having a national conversation about the opioid crisis largely perceived to be hitting suburban and rural areas. Politicians are rushing to create opioid task forces and are even allocating resources for communities newly facing skyrocketing overdose rates. But don’t think this compassionate approach is being applied to our communities; the record overdose deaths with Black and Latinx communities go largely ignored.
In fact, if the South Bronx were a state with a population roughly similar to Wyoming, it would have the second-deadliest overdose rate in the country. The shocking news that overdose deaths involving heroin and/or fentanyl increased 112 percent among Black New Yorkers in a single year between 2015 and 2016 garners hardly a mention in the press, let alone a task force.
While politicians espouse a softer, more understanding approach over the War on Drugs, and while President Trump may have directed the Department of Health and Human Services to declare our country’s opioid epidemic a “public health emergency,” both law enforcement and the administration are still building out ways to criminalize communities of color, very similar to how they handled the heroin and crack epidemics that decimated Black communities in the 1970s and 80s.
In New York, Mayor DeBlasio issued his Healing NYC initiative to combat the opioid epidemic, but approximately half of its $143.7 million budget is allocated to the NY Police Department, with much of it dedicated to death scene investigations aimed at arresting sellers for drug induced homicide.
Drug-induced homicide laws provide broad cover for police to arrest anyone involved with an overdose–whether or not they were a friend or loved one of the person who died of overdose, a common case when these laws have been applied. Far from going after kingpins or preventing people from using opioids, these laws instead discourage family, friends, and acquaintances from seeking medical care for someone who is overdosing because of the looming threat of arrest. This undermines New York’s 911 Good Samaritan Law, which aims to encourage people to call for help if they encounter an overdose to prevent unnecessary deaths.
Even when policies are ostensibly crafted to “help” people who use drugs, there is a gaping disparity in outcomes. Drug courts are a prime example of how this inequity plays out.
Earlier this month at the National Black Caucus of State Legislators Conference, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, a respected expert on the opioid crisis, noted that even in drug courts that aim to divert people with substance use issues from prison, judges disproportionately single out White defendants for drug treatment while relegating Black defendants into prison.
Adams observes that judges in drug courts decide who gets treatment based on their subjective opinions about who they believe to be most likely to succeed, namely people with what they deem strong, stable family support systems and access to critical resources like housing and food.
“The affluent and the non-minorities are going to be the ones that have the best chance of being successful and the minorities and the less affluent are not,” said Adams. “We need to make sure when policies are implemented to address the opioid epidemic, they’re implemented in an equitable way.”
At the heart of the matter is the fact that most of our drug laws were crafted based on junk science and racial stereotypes. Addiction is not specific to racial group or economic class, but the effects of drug policy have had a disparate impact on Black and Latinx communities. We can’t play ourselves; just because the face of addiction has whitened does not mean our country’s commitment to criminalizing us has lessened. We must be vigilant in conversations of reform and critically scrutinize the broader narrative of a gentler drug war.
When we talk about safer streets, we must always ask, “safer for whom?” It’s critical that we harness this rare moment of reflection to move the dial in our favor, create a more just and sensible society, and finally dismantle a system which was set up for our destruction.