Overdoses Are Rising because the War on Drugs Isn’t Over

More than 64,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2016. Let’s put that in perspective. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this is higher than gun-related deaths during its peak in 1993 or the HIV/AIDS epidemic at its peak in 1995. Overdose death totals for 2017 are projected to be higher.

As a community organizer in Baltimore, often dubbed the heroin capital of the US, I advocate for harm reduction approaches to increase safety for people who use drugs. Harm reduction is a practice rooted in health equity and social justice, used to mitigate negative health, social, and economic consequences associated with various behaviors, such as drug use and sex. Practitioners like myself provide evidence-based strategies—such as syringe services and safer drug consumption spaces—that avoid judgement, save money, and, most importantly, prevent overdose.

Central to harm reduction is advocating an end to the War on Drugs. That’s right, this “war” isn’t over. For over forty years, the government has used its War on Drugs strategy to ineffectively promote abstinence; militarize law enforcement; and weaponize peoples of color domestically and abroad. This “war” has stigmatized human behavior to uphold systems of oppression, namely racism and capitalism, and has exacerbated risks of overdose death.

Since the inception of the War on Drugs in 1971, overdose rates have risen exponentially. Amid this ever-growing overdose crisis, I urge fellow humanists to utilize our power of skepticism to take an honest look at drug policies—if not to save lives, what have the objectives and the impact of the War on Drugs been?

President Richard Nixon declared this so-called war to dismantle resistance from “hippies” and Black people. For the most part, it worked. This declaration inculcated into the American psyche a suspicion of drug users and set the stage for escalating violence and social deterioration in Black communities.

For example, following Nixon’s declaration, Detroit appointed a new police commissioner as the city’s Black population was growing (1960: 29 percent; 1970: 44 percent; 1980: 63 percent). The new commissioner immediately doubled capacity of his narcotics unit. Police crackdowns targeted Black communities, escalating turf wars and murder. This violence invigorated politicians to further expand the authority and financial capacity of the police force. As investigative journalist Radley Balko describes in Rise of the Warrior Cop (2013), “it was one of the first examples of the sort of self-perpetuating, self-escalating feedback loop created by the modern-day drug war.”

After that, government spending prioritized criminalization over supportive services while addiction continued to take hold across communities without social safety nets. However, more white users began experiencing opioid overdose by the 2000s and suddenly we see a growing compassion for opioid users. One such example is the recent Forbes article, “America’s Workforce is Paying a Huge Price for the Opioid Epidemic,” wherein Nicholas Wyman discusses the increasing workforce inequality caused by the opioid crisis. Wyman argues that “a growing number of working age men and women are disappearing from the workforce,” making a significant impact on the economy at large.

While this loss is devastatingly true, we must also consider the decades of jobs and businesses lost in majority Black communities since Nixon’s declaration in 1971. What about the millions of Black and Brown people stripped away from their communities and thrown into for-profit prisons, unable to financially support their families due to employment restrictions and stigma related to non-violent, drug-related criminal records?

As Michelle Alexander stated during her keynote at this year’s Drug Policy Reform Conference, “whiteness makes a difference.” She went on to describe the breadth of the opioid crisis and argued, “if the overwhelming majority of the users and dealers of opioids today were Black rather than white, we wouldn’t have police chiefs competing with each other over whose department is showing more compassion to people struggling with drug addiction.”

This is our charge if we are to effectively end overdose death. Any discussion about addiction must include an analysis of drug laws that have historically and continue to target and traumatize Black communities.

The colorblind economic analysis of the opioid epidemic presented in Forbes ignores the historical impacts of the War on Drugs and therefore, as NPR’s Sam Sanders would say, is incomplete and most likely deceptive. This decades-old “war” further politicized America’s fears of Blackness and bolstered the economic power of the prison and military systems. With more white people experiencing overdose, compassion—rather than fear or hatred—is fueling more decisions. Society has a sudden “readiness” to humanize addiction now that the sustainability of white communities is at stake. Where was this willingness to see one’s humanity when the face of addiction was Black during the crack epidemic? Where is it now for Black users?

As Wyman argues, to maintain a steadier workforce we must provide alternatives to punishment, namely access to treatment. This is not a new demand, but it’s heard more clearly now that white Americans are suffering, too. However, as Michelle Alexander explained, “white folks would have a more comprehensive treatment infrastructure if not for the racist drug war.” Government has been unwilling to expand life-saving services, even at the sacrifice of (predominantly low-income) white communities.

In contrast to the cultural increase in compassion, there is still no sign the federal government will meet the need for overdose prevention and response. Donald Trump’s recent demure declaration of the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency has opened up a mere $57,000 in funds for a crisis the CDC estimates will require $78.5 billion to appropriately address. Meanwhile, our government continues to spend billions on the criminal justice system to maintain drug war policies.

Ending the War on Drugs is a humanist issue we must address using a racial justice lens. As Jason Jeffries stated at the 2016 Secular Social Justice Conference, “if humanists are accountable and responsible for the human condition and the correction of humanity’s plight, then racism should be of concern.” The ways this country has chosen to address drug use is a clear spotlight into the value our society places on Black humanity. Until we acknowledge the racist history of the War on Drugs and actively use equity-oriented strategies such as harm reduction to repair the damage it’s caused, death by overdose will happen again and again.