Addiction Is Not Just a White Problem

Drug Misuse Today Isn’t Just a White Problem

In the past few years, the United States has slowly begun to shift from a heavy-handed criminalization approach to drug use, to one that follows a medical model. Don’t get me wrong: when I say slowly, I mean it. Many criminal justice authorities—from cops to judges—still believe that punishing people who use drugs is an effective deterrent to drug use, despite a large body of evidence suggesting that it doesn’t work, and that providing evidence-based treatment and harm reduction supports do work. But a shift is underway. Which is great, because any shift toward more humane treatment toward people who use drugs is a positive.

Some people, however, are upset. Over the past few years, the media has painted a specific face on what some now term the “opioid epidemic.” That face is white, middle-class, and a victim of opioid pill prescriptions. And that white face, many believe, is driving this more compassionate, health-centered approach. During the 80s and 90s “crack epidemic,” however, the popular image of a typical drug user was black and poor—and the response was largely punitive. Critics are calling out this racist and hypocritical duality by asking why it was fine to jail black bodies but it’s now not okay to do the same for white bodies? The grievance is absolutely legitimate, but there are a few issues that still need to be addressed.

People of Color Are Still Targets of the Drug War

While it’s true that some white, middle-class people who once had opioid prescriptions do develop an addiction, the majority of people with legitimate opioid prescriptions don’t develop an addiction to their medication. Street drugs and illegitimately obtained pharmaceuticals are still causing the most harm (when it comes to illegal substance use; yearly alcohol related deaths exceed those related to all other drugs). And those drugs are still being used by people of color. Regardless of the media narrative, low-income black and Latino communities remain highly affected by substance misuse. And people of color are still the most likely to be targeted by law enforcement, regardless of what populations are actually using more drugs overall. The racial and ethnic disparities in our prison populations—especially among people with drug charges—are appalling. It is important to recognize that while it is legitimate and necessary to question the potentially racist reasoning behind the growing shift toward a public health approach, that public health approach is still ultimately positive, and will help drug using populations across demographics.

We Need to Actively Include People of Color In Evidence-Based Treatment

Although it’s false to believe today’s drug users are mostly white middle-class housewives, those middle-class housewives still have better access to evidence-based treatment. As Joseph P. Williams writes for Us News, low-income communities of color are being overlooked when it comes to evidence-based drug treatment. People who cannot afford to pay out-of-pocket costs for opioid agonist therapies like methadone and buprenorphine are often excluded from being able to access care. This is a class issue, but when you combine it with the excessive stigmatizing and criminalization of black drug users, and the difficulty many black people—especially black women—face when it comes to simply being believed by their own doctors, you begin to see how accessing evidence-based care for addiction becomes especially difficult for low-income people of color.

In order to surmount this inequity, we need to first acknowledge that it exists. Then, there needs to be better physical and economic access to methadone and buprenorphine providers near low-income black and Latino communities, and treatment providers need to provide culturally-informed services and outreach. Today’s “opioid epidemic” is not just a white problem. A public health approach to drug use and addiction will make positive change for people of color—but only if providers and policy makers become better at recognizing and including these populations.

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2019-02-01T10:59:55+00:00