by Princess Harmony
Heroin use has been promoted from a criminal charge to a public health crisis. The heroin itself has not changed, but rather the populations using heroin have increased. Because white, middle class people have been using at increasing rates, public health officials, parents, and medical experts announced a heroin epidemic. This shift occurred without recognizing the reality that the heroin ‘epidemic’ has already been occurring for decades, radically affecting lives of black and brown people, in addition to poor, mostly rural, whites. Populations using heroin long before this announcement in 2013 have been met by violent systems, legal punishment, and incarceration.
For me, a recent piece in the New York Times really illustrates the fictional underpinnings of the heroin epidemic in the United States. Quite simply, the “heroin epidemic” exists only because those with privilege are affected. Now, white, middle class people who previously supported the War on Drugs beg for a “gentler” drug war where treatment, not prison, is the norm for addicts.
Now white children living in white neighborhoods are using. White middle class families don’t want their children to be subjected to the same penal system that low-income and people of color populations have been. White communities don’t want the sentencing, arrests, and punishments of middle class white drug offenders to be made equal to that of black, brown, and poor rural whites.
As queer and trans people of color, we are denied the dignity and compassion of equal medical treatment in general. Many of the treatment systems that exist deny trans people recognition of their gender (even if we get our legal documents changed) and are generally unsafe systems for queer and trans people to be in, thanks to medical staff who are untrained to deal with us –often resulting in misgendering, the pulling of hormones, or other forms of abuse. Despite all of this, when we do seek help, our chances of actually receiving it are decreased greatly because we’re of color and/or we’re of a lower socio-economic class.
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At every stage of addiction, social disparities divide how addicts are treated and (not) supported. Drug addicts who come from white, middle class backgrounds receive empathy and support whereas drug addicts who aren’t white and/or who are poor are hardly treated like human beings. Placed in the hands of the legal system, people of color and poor folks are met with incarceration and/or other legal repercussions. Incarceration for non-violent drug crimes destroys lives. Some will be imprisoned for the rest of their lives and others, even when they get out, won’t ever be truly free of it because they aren’t allowed to get back on their feet.
This is nothing new. The United States generally doesn’t have any idea how to address drugs, addiction, and drug addicts, often dramatically flip-flopping between enforcing imprisonment or advocating for treatment. In 1935, the United States Narcotic Farm was created to both imprison and recover drug addicts. The 1970s were marked by Richard Nixon’s presidency when he declared the modern War on Drugs. Mostly, this war consisted of – and continues to consist of – tearing apart Black and Latino families by incarcerating or killing drug users or drug dealers. In 2014, the citizens of the State of Colorado approved a measure that legalized marijuana, so now white men are making millions from a drug that thousands of Black and Latino men are still in prison for selling.
What if we called the War on Drugs an epidemic? What if we called it a public health crisis for our communities?
Even now, as marijuana prohibitions are lifting, people of color are still being harassed for it. If I were to smoke marijuana openly in the City of Philadelphia – a city that decriminalized marijuana – I would be accosted and harassed by the Philadelphia Police Department. I am a recovered heroin addict. I’m also afrolatin, very visibly nonwhite, and I’m a (trans) woman. All of these things shape the help I could access and what would happen to me if I was found with drug paraphernalia. Despite decriminalization, Black and Brown people still account for most of Philadelphia’s marijuana detentions. Both marijuana and heroin reveal the legal system’s inability to address drug dependency in a way that also recognizes the humanity of people of color.
Politics are one more important piece of the puzzle. Candidates in the 2016 Presidential election have taken stances on the Drug War related to specific race and class beliefs. The Republican side of the election, generally, supports ramping up efforts in the Drug War in response to the “epidemic” (which is also, probably, related to their general lack of support for Black people and Latinxs). The Libertarian-esque Rand Paul specifically said that he wanted to end the Drug War because of its effect on black families.
On the other side, the Democrats have their own ideas. Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley both want to scale back the enforcement of the Drug War; they’ve also acknowledged what the drug war did to Black (and, to a lesser extent, Latinx) families. Most radically and unsurprisingly, Bernie Sanders wants to end the War on Drugs completely. Most notably, he wants to remove marijuana from the drug schedule, and legalize it for medical use. He also wants to send non-violent offenders to treatment in efforts to end the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people.
However, treatment costs money. A lot of money. Sen. Sanders’ reform ideas appeal most to me, but it’s doubtful that if such a policy is pursued the treatment would be covered by the government. I want a treatment-aimed reform of drug policy that does not perpetuate the barriers for low-income people to enter treatment. Could the profits from marijuana legalization go towards the rehabilitation from harder drugs? Or would they just help fund other oppressive government structures?
I have a, maybe naïve, hope that whoever takes the Presidency in 2016 will end the War on Drugs. At the very least, I hope the reform of the War on Drugs is on the horizon, especially on the heels of President Obama’s visit to a federal prison. I want people, of all races, to have the opportunity to get help through services that they require. I also want an end to criminalization and prohibition of marijuana.
I write in the hopes that we can look at drug use and abuse intersectionally. A reform, or a full cessation, of the drug war, would undoubtedly help people of color, so long as the reforms can be enforced across the country (therein lies, perhaps, the biggest problem: getting local police forces to comply). Whether or not Clinton, O’Malley, Paul, or Sanders will carry through with reforms, or will be allowed to carry through with them, I don’t know. But we must be sure that we don’t expect reforms to save us from a broken system.
Princess Harmony is a pretty sick girl (heheh, get it?) who really likes bright lipsticks. When she’s not crying in pain, she writes, watches anime, and plays video games. Her favorite foods are empanadas, papas rellenas, and jelly donuts. She can be found on Twitter at @jasmine_weapons.
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