Federal Drug Policy Softens As Whites Become Face Of Heroin Addiction
The numbers speak loud and clear about who’s suffering from America’s current heroin crisis—white people. The American Medical Association reports that 90 percent of first-time heroin users in the last decade were white.
But that didn’t stop Maine Gov. Paul LePage from using racially coded language to blame his predominantly white state’s heroin problem on outsiders.
“These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty—these types of guys—they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home,” LePage said during a town hall meeting on Thursday. “Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing, because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”
In addition to prompting accusations of racial insensitivity, LePage’s comments also betray a lack of understanding about who is most affected by the crisis. Heroin addiction disproportionately impacts white families, and U.S. drug policy is changing as a result—reversing long-standing trends in which drug addiction was largely perceived as a problem for racial minorities and seen as grounds for stricter law enforcement and prison sentencing.
The move, which was spearheaded by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled a surprising change of heart for the party that once equated such harm-reduction programs to surrender.
Asked to explain why he chose to champion funding for needle exchange programs after publicly opposing them, Rogers told TakePart in an emailed statement that he “still [opposes] the use of federal funds to subsidize illicit drug use, but also believes many organizations administering syringe exchange programs at the state and local level are uniquely poised to provide much-needed intervention for those struggling with addiction.”
According to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, heroin overdose claimed the lives of 233 residents in 2014, as compared with 22 deaths there in 2010. Across the country, heroin deaths have increased from approximately 2,000 in 2002 to nearly 11,000 in 2014, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In hard-hit Ohio, Libby Harrison, director of the Cincinnati Exchange Project, welcomed the federal funding, saying she now keeps clean syringes in the hands of addicts by “nickel-and-diming to the nth degree.”
Through the ban on using federal funds to purchase syringes remains in place, the measure allows money to flow toward staffing, vans, educational materials, and other line items crucial to the daily function of needle exchange programs.
“A good portion of addicts don’t want to be using anymore,” Harrison said. “If they are comfortable, I’ll take their number, and we’ll sit down and talk about what programs work best for them. We connect people to HIV care, hepatitis C care, domestic abuse programs, and housing programs. I’m not a social worker, but I’m pretty good at getting you to the right social worker.”
Jelani Kerr of the University of Louisville School of Public Health and Information Sciences said the high rate of hepatitis C in Kentucky and the HIV outbreak in neighboring Indiana demonstrate the risks of sharing needles and the urgent need for effective harm-reduction programs.
“[These crises] necessitate evidence-based strategies to combat the threat of these diseases, and syringe exchange is considered an effective evidence-based strategy to reduce HIV and hep C risk,” Kerr said.
The data on needle exchange programs has been clear since at least April 1998, when then–Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala announced, following an extensive study, that “needle exchange programs can reduce the transmission of HIV and save lives without losing ground in the battle against illegal drugs.”
That same year, then–Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, responded to President Bill Clinton’s proposal to eliminate the funding ban by proclaiming that “there can be no middle ground in the war on drugs.”
President Barack Obama would lift the ban in 2009, only to see it reinstated by Republicans after their takeover of the House of Representatives during the 2010 midterm elections.
Harrison says the change of heart experienced by Republicans can be at least partly attributed to heroin’s effects on white middle-class families.
“It’s all over the demographic map, from long-term addicts in their 60s and 70s to very wealthy kids pulling up in Mercedes-Benzes,” Harrison said. “Some of the legislators are upset because suddenly it’s a family member who’s affected. It does hit closer to home.”
Kenney Miller, the executive director of the Health Equity Alliance in Ellsworth, Maine, said a similar scenario is playing out with the predominantly white residents of his state, despite LePage’s attempt to tie the heroin crisis to insidious outsiders.
“People in general tend to be more impacted when they can connect with the victims, and by and large, Congress is still predominantly composed of Caucasian middle-class people with advanced levels of education, and they’re much more able to connect to people that they know,” Miller said. “I think that more and more there’s a growing recognition that substance abuse affects everybody, and there’s been a dispelling of the myth of the strung-out junkie living on the streets.”
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at Washington, D.C.–based The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, said it’s worth questioning whether rehabilitation-based approaches would be embraced if heroin were perceived as an epidemic among African Americans and Latinos.
“The more people associate drug crime with people of color, the more likely they are to support punitive policy solutions. Usually as a result of a perceived epidemic, we see predominantly terrible polices as a result. But in this case we are seeing a move in the treatment direction, which is a really positive outcome,” Ghandnoosh said. “So the question is, how much is this about race? And how do we replicate this next time, if those impacted by the perceived epidemic aren’t white?”