Addiction in Black America, The Collateral Damage of a Failed War on Drugs


Back in 2012 when my son was actively struggling in his addiction, I simply couldn’t understand how he—my white, middleclass, educated son—had managed to fall victim to a disease that I had always thought we were insulated from. In my naivete, and perhaps because I was not yet “woke” to the myriad realities of this illness, I thought addiction was something that happened deep in the urban armpit of the inner city and affected people living a life very different from our own middleclass one. I had a lot to learn.


Incarceration—A Failed Solution to a Complex Problem

The War on Drugs was and is a failure. Founded on the premise that incarceration was the answer to the problem, it failed to meet even the most basic needs of those who suffer a substance use disorder. My understanding of just how impotent the offensive on drug addiction was came into focus as I watched my son succumb to the illness and likewise tangle himself in a complicated legal system that no addict is equipped to navigate. Fortunately, my son had a few things on his side including a family willing to scrape the bottom of their bank accounts to finance both good legal representation and recovery options. But as I would come to understand, our nightmarish journey, as twisted and difficult and confusing as it was for all of us, could have been even more hopeless. As a nation, we are just now starting to unravel the fact that social policy and criminal justice initiatives embedded in the infamous War on Drugs also disproportionately destroyed the lives of disenfranchised populations and specifically the Black community.


Comparing Black and White Drug Use and Subsequent Inequities in Our Courts


In general, studies show that the rate of drug use for Black Americans is close to or identical to the rate of drug use amongst all Americans. But starting in the ‘70s and accelerating in the ’80, the rate of incarceration for drug use amongst Black Americans has been shockingly higher than that of white Americans. It isn’t hard to imagine why this is the case. Black Americans are more likely to be stopped and searched, less likely to have good legal representation in court, and are less likely to have access to good recovery options. Much of this is due to disparities in income. The poverty rate in this country is roughly 9.2 percent. White Americans have a 6.6 percent poverty rate, Black, non-Hispanic people have a rate more than twice that of 15 percent. It goes without saying that a life lived in poverty affords one less opportunity and that includes opportunity for recovery from a substance use disorder.


The good news is that we as a nation are waking up to the inequities. But the sad truth, and I’ve said this before, is that white America ignored this problem with a “lock-‘em-up” solution for a very long time. That is, until the opioid crisis crept out of urban America and into the suburbs and rural areas. The opioid crisis hit hard, and it slapped white America right in the face. Suddenly those of us who thought we were safely insulated from this nightmare recognized drug addiction for what it is—a public health crisis that absolutely cannot be solved by incarceration. Yet even in the midst of our awakening, and while middle class and affluent families struggle to get help for their afflicted family members, the Black community overall has deeper struggles with finding the resources and support necessary to sustain recovery for a family member. In the Black community disproportionate poverty and barriers to education and employment mean that it is typically close to impossible to find resources for recovery. Disproportionate poverty is only part of the problem. Racism in sentencing is a real issue and the barriers to education and employment only further complicate recovery. Studies even suggest that Black Americans with adequate insurance are less often directed to services when being released from the hospital or an emergency room visit for an overdose. Racism in sentencing is real. Studies show that Black drug offenders are incarcerated at higher rates, more often given maximum sentences, and less likely to be provided addiction services for drug offenses than are white Americans, and this includes non-violent drug offenses. For perspective, think about this: African Americans make up 14 percent of the population and 12 percent of illicit drug use. Yet 33 percent of incarcerations due to drugs are represented by Black Americans. Black male offenders receive sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than white male offenders for similar situations and are sent to prison for drug offenses 13 times more often than white men What’s more, according to The United States Sentencing Commission, violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to account for any of the demographic differences in sentencing.


Crack Cocaine versus Powder Cocaine—Same Drug, Different Crime


For concrete examples as to how past law has affected the Black American population versus white Americans one need look no further than the laws (many of which have thankfully changed or been amended in recent years) regarding possession of crack cocaine versus possession of powder cocaine. Chemically these drugs are virtually identical. The biggest difference between the two forms of the drug was/is cost. Crack cocaine is cheaper than powder versions of cocaine and is also easier to produce and distribute in small amounts. But a misguided Newsweek article back in 1986 claimed that crack was “the most addictive drug known to man” and almost immediately the penalties for possession of small amounts (amounts small enough to be deemed “for personal use”) of crack cocaine sent thousands of young Black men to prison to serve absurdly long sentences. The law mandated a five-year sentence for a mere five grams of crack cocaine. Meanwhile, the rich and famous and the middle-class white college students were subjected to lesser sentences for possession of the very same amount of the drug in powder form. Basically, the amount of powder cocaine that would send a distributor to prison for five years was 100 times the amount of crack cocaine needed to send an individual to prison for years. Think about what that means: It meant that someone with five grams of crack cocaine was sentenced to the same penalty as someone who had 500 grams of powder cocaine. This was a massive injustice perpetrated against primarily urban Black men and women who used crack cocaine in lieu of the more expensive powder form of the drug. While the laws were adjusted in 2010, crack cocaine possession still results in longer sentencing for individuals than does powder cocaine.


Drug Free Zones, A Good Idea on Paper.


The creation of Drug Free Zones sounds terrific on paper. Who wants drug dealers hanging around our schools and community centers? Basically, the law states that when a drug offense is committed on or within 1,000 feet of a school, community center, park or public housing facility the crime is raised one degree, thus a second-degree felony becomes a first-degree felony, and the offender faces a harsher sentence. For example, selling cocaine is a second-degree felony, punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. However, the sale of cocaine near a public housing facility becomes a first-degree felony and punishable by up to thirty years in prison with a minimum sentence of three years. If you consider the density of schools, public housing, parks and community centers in urban areas, it isn’t hard to imagine that nearly all drug related sales are going to take place within a perimeter that mandates even tougher sentencing.


These are just a few examples of ways in which the legal system historically has disproportionately affected Black men and women. And for years we accepted these sentences as the just price young men and women paid for the crime of being an addict. But as the opioid crisis speed-walked across America’s suburbs, white families began to deal with the collateral damage of addiction amongst their own children and the outcry rang out. Suddenly we were adjusting our understanding of this disease—and rightly so, but for many derailed Black Americans the shift is too little and too late. Lengthy prison sentences have seriously compromised recovery and taken parents away from their children for many years.


At Love In The Trenches, we advocate for revised sentencing laws that begin with recovery options for non-violent drug related charges. We acknowledge the sad and shameful fact that white America just wasn’t paying attention until it became our problem as well. Before my son became ill with a substance use disorder, what was happening to the Black community simply wasn’t on my radar. But it’s on my radar now and my co-founder Kelly Gill and I are committed to supporting all families struggling with this disease. Addiction is a long-term chronic and recurring illness from which there is no cure, but recovery and sustained remission is possible—for all Americans. Real change requires that we acknowledge the troubling disparities in our legal system and our support systems, that we advocate for support services geared towards supporting recovery for all, and that we admit that addiction is an equal opportunity illness and that all those afflicted deserve our love and support.

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