Oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl, heroin. The names of these drugs haunt millions of American families who have lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic. No part of the country is immune to the terrible casualties of this epidemic. From rural towns to busy city-centers, opioid abuse has permeated all parts of American life. Our firefighters are using Narcan, a drug that reverses an opioid overdose, more often than they use hoses. Our prisons and jails are overrun with people, mostly people of color, facing nonviolent drug charges. It is clear that the way we are dealing with this crisis is not cutting it. The strain of the opioid epidemic has fallen disproportionately on communities of color, and this is not a coincidence. While some argue that addiction should be criminalized to disincentivize drug use, the framing of addiction as a crime rather than a mental health issue has been purposefully crafted over more than half of a century to criminalize communities of color.

The Opioid Epidemic in America

The Opioid Epidemic as we know it today began in the late 1990’s, when doctors began prescribing opioids as painkillers for patients. However, nowadays, the majority of opioid-related deaths are not due to prescription opioids, but to synthetic drugs such as illicitly manufactured heroin and fentanyl. Currently, about 130 people die every day from opioid overdose, and in 2018, 10.3 million Americans misused prescription opioids. This crisis has been declared a public health emergency by the Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition to the general harms of drug abuse on the body and risk of overdose, there are many other effects of this epidemic, including Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, which causes a newborn baby to go through withdrawals symptoms after being exposed to drugs from their mother in the womb. Other effects are the uptick of dangerous diseases spread through dirty needles such as HIV and Hepatitis C, with more than 20% of new HIV cases in 2017 being caused by injection drug use.

The Drug War

Long before heroin and fentanyl became many Americans’ drugs of choice, the 1970s saw a period of time known as the “war on drugs.” President Richard Nixon declared this “war,” claiming that his intention was to make communities safer, but in reality, his administration had much darker intentions. A top aide of Nixon’s, John Ehrlichman, was quoted as saying, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. […] We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

It is clear from this quote that the intention of the war on drugs was to incarcerate people of color, and that it did. During the Reagan administration, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 in 1997, with a large percentage of these offenders being people of color. While Black and White individuals use and sell drugs at approximately the same rate, Black individuals are about 6.5 times as likely to be incarcerated for drug-related crimes. Drugs were never the enemy; communities of color were.

The Case for Criminalizing Drugs

Despite the ugly history of drug laws, many people still believe that drug use should be criminalized to de-incentivize people from using drugs. Proponents of this theory state that decriminalizing drug use will make young people more likely to experiment with drugs, and therefore create more addicts, increasing the need for already thinly stretched treatment resources. While these are valid concerns, we can still discourage drug use without criminalizing it. In Portugal, almost all drug use was decriminalized in 2001, and cases of substance abuse were handled by counselors rather than police and prison wardens. Since then, Portugal has actually seen substance abuse rates cut in half, addiction treatment become more affordable and effective, violence due to drug trafficking reduced, and most of all, the view of drug use shift from a crime to a disease.

Addiction Is Not A Crime

The effects of the mass decriminalization of drugs in Portugal presents irrefutable evidence that the problem is not, in fact, drugs, but how we as a society deal with addiction. Addiction is a disease where an intense focus on a substance takes over one’s life. While many addicts can recover with help and lead normal lives, the way to obtain this goal is certainly not to throw addicts in jails and prisons. Rather, we need to view drug use as a symptom of a disease (addiction) and treat it as such. The current view of addiction creates a culture of shame, which only serves to perpetuate the very shame spiral that so often drives people to do drugs in the first place. This system is designed to harm people of color, who often have less access to mental health resources, and are more likely to be convicted of drug crimes. The system created in the 1970s by Richard Nixon is self-perpetuating to continue causing immense harm to Black and Brown communities. The opioid epidemic is not a crime wave; it is a mental health crisis.

What Can We Do?

It is clear that much needs to change in order to fight the opioid epidemic. Primarily, we need to destigmatize addiction and prioritize treatment over punishment. We also must push lawmakers to have a massive overhaul of the laws regarding drug use created by the war on drugs. These laws had racism at their core and were an inappropriate method to deal with drug use in the 1970s, let alone now. Additionally, we must support policies that will protect drug users, such as needle exchange programs and safe injection sites. While these services will not end the opioid epidemic, they can help to mitigate the harm by preventing disease spread and overdose. The opioid epidemic is complex and multi-faceted, and ending it will not be easy, but it is clear that what we are doing at present is at best ineffective, and at worst, purposefully targeting communities of color.