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27th September 2019

The opioid crisis in the US: transforming attitudes to addiction

Nimo Omer discusses the representation of drug addiction and race and its impact on policy in the US
The opioid crisis in the US: transforming attitudes to addiction
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, MD – Surgeon General of the United States Dr. Jerome Adams delivers the keynote address during the National Opioid Crisis Community Summit at the Mallette Training Facility here, Dec. 11. Photo Credit: Sean Kief, APG Public Affairs

Drug addiction knows no borders, state or nation. It does not discriminate; holding captive anyone from celebrities, politicians, academics as well as friends, family and co-workers. Whilst discourse has certainly improved in the last few years, policy is yet to catch up in the way it handles those affected, still choosing criminalisation over rehabilitation. 

In the last decade there has been a media fascination with the opioid epidemic ravaging America’s suburbs. More than 400,000 people have died from opioid overdoses since 1999 and the problem is unlikely to abate any time soon with those affected increasing. Whilst tragic, it is difficult to avoid the near unanimously sympathetic coverage of white opioid users, as opposed to the decades of derision, demonisation, and criminalisation that black and brown addicts have faced by both law enforcement and the media. This is not just a question of disparaging stereotypes being reproduced – it has led to materially different policies. 

Whilst black and brown bodies continue to be policed, beaten, killed, and imprisoned for drug use, pharmaceutical companies are, rightfully, being taken to court and fined heavily for their role in the opioid epidemic. In a landmark case, a few weeks ago a judge in Oklahoma held Johnson & Johnson liable for the state’s opioid epidemic, fining them over half a billion dollars. This marks the beginning of a long line of lawsuits, with over 40 states gearing up to file similar claims against big pharma. 

This is an undeniably positive thing, for years pharmaceutical companies have been allowed to run amok, with reports showing that they have shipped 76 billion opioid pain pills just between 2006-2012. It is clear that the law’s intervention, if anything, is belated.

However whilst large pharmaceutical companies are being dragged through the judicial system, and political pundits are writing scathing indictments of the callousness of their chief executives, when it comes to minorities the scorn is preserved only for the victims. There is no soul searching, no nuanced and thought provoking op-eds, no hard hitting documentaries. Race does not need to be explicitly mentioned for us to understand the implications, the subtext is clear enough. 

The press is facilitating what has been called a narcotic apartheid by pushing opposing narratives about the same problem. Heartbreaking stories of mental illness and misfortune become unsparing cautionary tales of recklessness and delinquency, but the tone that is taken depends on the colour of who is being discussed. The fact that black and brown addicts have been attacked under the guise of a war on drugs, whilst simultaneously humanising reporting of white addicts, has created a totally separate space in the public’s mind. This in turn has normalised rehabilitation and began a discourse about preventative measures; this discourse unfortunately excludes minorities. 

The move towards treating drug addiction as a mental illness rather than a criminal offence is long overdue, and it does look like the pharmaceutical industry will face the wrath of the public and judicial system. You know things have really reached breaking point when the American legal system seems to actually be punishing the right people. All I suggest is that we perhaps need to start extending this same compassion and justice to all those who need it.

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