Sunday, September 20, 2015
The Drug War Is a Drug
A fellow worker I met a social occasion recently told me about his childhood. His family regularly took in and cared for cousins whose family members were in jail. Why were they in jail? I asked. They were using or selling drugs.
I knew that his family had been poor. Was there a connection between drug use and poverty?
Many so-called experts believe that. There is the old narrative of the "culture of poverty," of families in which generations are poor, often addicted, and permanent wards of the state, dependent on what ever welfare and social service programs exist at the time. Poverty is a set of bad habits and disabilities which parents hand down to children and then to grandchildren.
In the background of the story always lingers the assumption that these poor people were or are persons of color.
There is a limited amount of truth to that in so far in the early years after World War II when hard drugs first became a problem in the United States, the majority of users were black ghetto inhabitants.
Today the majority of illegal drug users are white. A significant percentage of them are middle-class suburbanites. The common narrative about them is that they sustained a serious physical injury and their doctor prescribed large quantities of opioid painkillers. The patient is soon addicted but since the illegal painkillers are very expensive, and heroin cheaper, they end up injecting heroin, smoking, or snorting it.
The story about drug abuse as a disease of the black ghetto is false and most likely one element of the pervasive racist narratives circulating in white America.
But the government is actively perpetuating that myth. The war on drugs, fought primarily by police, is focusing on drug abuse that is visible. It is much harder to find people who get quietly high in their suburban home than to find the people who are "being a public nuisance" on the street or who are selling drugs openly. The war on drugs still focuses on poor neighborhoods, by no means only inhabited by African-Americans. ( My co-worker’s family is white). As far as the chiefs of staff of the war on drugs are concerned the battlefield is in the poorer parts of town. It calls for the biggest guns you have.
In recent years, efforts have begun to persuade doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers much more cautiously. Considerable pressure is being brought to bear on drug manufacturers to develop alternative pain medications that are not as seriously addictive as the painkillers the drug companies are currently producing.
This is one approach to solving the growing crisis of drug abuse and with it of drug overdoses that by now are killing a significant number of Americans, most of them young.
Improving drug treatment, improving access to drug treatment is another approach.
But as far as the drug warriors are concerned descending an apartment in the ghetto with a SWAT team in their body armor and huge weapons is the only way. The violent war on drugs is it self addictive and our government agencies are hooked. They cannot conceive a world in which they cannot batter down doors, guns blazing and emerging with someone in handcuffs on his or her way to jail.
Being high feels good. That is why addiction is a threat. Being high feels good whether your addiction is chemical or ideological. As long as we perpetuate the myth that drug addiction is at home among the poor, we can blame them for their plight. By continuing the war on drugs in the ghetto the government is trying to demonstrate that it is not responsible for the suffering of the poor, that it is doing all it can to alleviate their pain. Pretending to be without guilt feels great.
But that is, of course, the delusion of an addict. We need a war-on-drugs-detox campaign.