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America’s Latest Drug Epidemic is a Horse of a Different Color

A jug of used needles to exchange for new is seen near in an industrial area of Camden, New Jersey.

The black man on television, wearing an expensive suit and open-collared shirt, offered Hannah Morris the ultimate standard of American beauty, saying to her, “you look young and fresh, you’re the girl next door.” Morris smiled and tossed her head to the side, allowing her shoulder-length, brown hair to flutter ever so slightly away from her peaches-and-cream face, in a modest acknowledgement of the compliment. Knowing what’s to come, she inhaled loudly, and exhaled even louder.

Then, the man—CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker—dropped the revelatory bomb: “And you were addicted to heroin.” It was a statement not a question, and with that Whitaker twisted a familiar old story into a shockingly unexpected narrative of epidemic heroin use that is ravaging the nation’s heartland and suburbs.

According to a recent New York Times investigation that was based on figures supplied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, “heroin-related deaths jumped 39 percent from 2012 to 2013, and the longer-term trends are equally disturbing: from 2002 to 2013, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled.” What’s more, the newspaper reported that white Americans are far more likely to be first-time heroin abusers:

Researchers have found that prior to the 1980s, whites and nonwhites were equally represented among first-time heroin users. But that’s changed as heroin use has expanded across other parts of the country.

Now, nearly 90 percent of the people who tried heroin for the first time in the past decade were white. And a growing number are middle-class or wealthy.

In a July report, the CDC found “significant increases in heroin use were found in groups with historically low rates of heroin use, including women and people with private insurance and higher incomes. The gaps between men and women, low and higher incomes, and people with Medicaid and private insurance have narrowed in the past decade.”

To be clear, the story of drug abuse in America and the public policy responses to it aren’t new. It’s been a staple horror story of American life for centuries. But the typical contemporary narrative has placed unattractive and dangerously scary black people—who live in squalid ghettoes of big cities—as the central characters of a morally bankrupt cautionary tale. And, as a result, the war on drugs has been popularly characterized as a punishing war on black people.

But that’s old news.

Reflecting the changing narrative and newfound sympathies for heroin victims—who this time are overwhelmingly white—public officials are becoming more tolerant and understanding. As The Marshall Project recently noted, policymakers are responding to the spike in suburban and rural heroin use “in the realm of medicine, not law.”

In other words, policymakers are seeking alternatives to the harsh and punitive approach they once aggressively enforced upon black people who were ensnarled in heroin’s embrace. Today, the media tells an emerging, socially responsible story where white people—who are suburbanites, high-school students, college athletes, soccer moms, and white-collar professionals—are the victims of an illness and require compassionate treatment. This is a far cry from the narrative that confirms popular stereotypes of black heroin users as other-worldly degenerates to be warehoused in prisons.

As The Marshall Project observed:

One public official after another, in states both “red” and “blue,” has pressed in recent years to treat increased heroin use as a public-safety problem as opposed to a criminal-justice matter best left to police, prosecutors, and judges. This is good news. But it forms a vivid contrast with the harsh reaction a generation ago to the sudden rise in the use of crack cocaine, and from the harsh reaction two generations ago to an earlier heroin epidemic.

Some public officials, such as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, recognize the errors of the past approach toward victimizing black heroin addicts. Appearing recently on CBS’ “This Morning,” DeWine responded to a question from correspondent Gayle King about the outrage from black communities when heroin was popularized as primarily a street-abused drug in the inner city.

DeWine didn’t wince, admitting that he was wrong about how to deal with drug abuse:

In the ’60s, ’70s—when I was a prosecutor—we looked at society and said, “those people over there.” They didn’t think it could be us, whatever us was. It was somebody else, in another city and it couldn’t be you.

Now, this epidemic cuts across every kind of line—geographical, but also by income. So anyone who is watching this … it could be your child, it could be your grandchild. It could be in your community. If you don’t think you have a heroin problem, you’re probably wrong.

That’s precisely why the story of a pretty, white woman from the affluent suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, is now the sympathetic face of our nation’s heroin epidemic. And that’s exactly how one goes from villain to victim.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.