Declaring War on Heroin

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An era has ended: The term “war on drugs” has become passé. Instead of trumpeting the “just say no” mantra of decades past, elected officials now rattle off the rhetoric – and sometimes even the policy recommendations – of decriminalization activists, using phrases like “public health issue” and “holistic approach.” President Obama’s 2014 Drug Control Strategy pointed to treatment and prevention as top priorities, downplaying the role of law enforcement and putting “war on drugs” in quotes. On the policy front, marijuana laws are loosening in many states, substantive sentencing reform bills are making their way through Congress, and the president may soon grant clemency to thousands of long-serving drug prisoners. At least 29 states are taking steps to roll back the harsh mandatory sentences that have lent fuel to the mass incarceration of millions of people of color and poor people over the past 30 years.

These changes have not always translated into decreased arrests – in fact, marijuana arrests remain at historically high levels, with people of color (and particularly black people) shouldering an immensely disproportionate amount of the burden, despite similar rates of drug use among racial groups.

Moreover, a glaring exception to the trend toward relaxing drug laws has surfaced in the last year: When it comes to heroin, policymakers have hit the drug war battlefield with renewed vigor. From the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman to reports of heroin use doubling in New York to a slew of headlines warning of increased opiate use among white suburban youth, news of a heroin “epidemic” has spread fast, and it has translated into a contagion of harsh drug policy.

Even as officials eschew “drug war” language, many states’ actions in response to the heroin panic have taken the same old tack. In Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal said last year that “substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration is a more effective treatment,” the governor signed a bill that substantially increases the mandatory minimum prison term for distribution or “possession with intent to distribute” heroin. Overwhelming, well-publicized evidence that mandatory minimums do not reduce crime – and instead result in the brutal warehousing of large numbers of black and brown people, along with vast expenditures of state dollars – has apparently been cast aside in the swirl of the heroin scare. In Virginia, where the governor recently celebrated Recovery Month (September) by extolling the virtues of treatment and disclosure, heroin arrests have more than doubled over the past five years. And New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo has declared his own plans to “turn the tide on this [heroin] epidemic,” signing into law a package of addiction treatment bills… and a slate of “strengthened” drug penalties.

Why the panic – and why the kneejerk punitive reaction?

The number of people who report using heroin has increased sharply over the past ten years, and in the wake of Hoffman’s death last year, mass media have seized on that trend as an “epidemic.” However, users have actually decreased in the past year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Plus, as Columbia University’s Dr. Carl Hart points out, most heroin users are not addicted to the substance, and the vast majority of overdose deaths occur when people combine heroin with other drugs, as in the case of Hoffman. Yet rather than expanding access to practical drug education (for example, informing people of the danger of combining heroin with other drugs), efforts – even those involving treatment – have been centered in the criminal legal system, following a longtime pattern in which “cracking down” on a health problem means involving police and targeting communities of color.

The heroin battle cry echoes a very familiar logic: Instead of focusing on pragmatic steps to protect public health, it frames “cracking down” on drugs as a morality-based mission. In 1986, Nancy Reagan announced, in the lead-up to a proposal that would intensify drug policing, “There is no moral middle ground… For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs.” On a parallel note, an Illinois police chief recently declared, “If we allow any kind of possession of heroin to be a misdemeanor, shame on our society.'” The sponsor of the recently enacted Tennessee law that criminalizes mothers who’ve used illicit drugs during their pregnancy (so far, mostly targeting opiate users), called the law a “velvet hammer” and erroneously warned that the lives of babies born to addicted mothers are “totally destroyed,” replicating the mantras used during the “crack baby” panic to justify the separation of many predominantly black mothers from their babies in the 1980s and ’90s. (Longitudinal studies have since disproven assumptions about “crack babies”; fetal alcohol syndrome, it turns out, is far more serious.)

Nowadays, many have abandoned the no-moral-middle-ground position when it comes to marijuana – now widely viewed as the “good drug” – but the rush for the “velvet hammer” is still embedded in our cultural backbone, ready for deployment when crisis seems to strike. The words “epidemic” and “scourge,” once used for crack, have now easily resurfaced to apply to heroin, and so have the penalties to match.

Responses to the heroin panic often also echo classic “tough on crime” refrains that have long driven the mass arrest and incarceration of people of color and the poor. For example, a Delaware police chief has initiated a plan modeled on New York’s notoriously racist “broken windows” policing practices, in which people – usually black and Latino people – are arrested for tiny infractions like riding bicycles on the sidewalk or jumping subway turnstiles. (The tragic effects of the “broken windows” mentality can be witnessed in the killing of Eric Garner by Staten Island cops, on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes.) The Delaware police chief told the local newspaper that in order to combat increased heroin use, “What we’re doing is broken windows on steroids.” Police in Medina, Ohio, recently unveiled a “broken windows” campaign to crack down on offenses like loitering and littering, in an effort, they say, to curb heroin possession and sales.

And so, although both facts and public opinion now firmly discourage the punitive approach (two out of three Americans oppose the prosecution of heroin possession, and a majority support a shift away from mandatory minimums), the past few months have demonstrated that when it comes to drug scares, our leaders have not moved beyond their reflexive reach for policing and prison.

Meanwhile, despite the Obama administration’s talk of emphasizing treatment and prevention, crucial public health measures continue to be neglected. A key example is the prohibition on financial support for needle exchange programs: Aside from a brief period between 2009 and 2011, these initiatives have been banned from receiving federal funding for the past 25 years. Needle exchange drastically reduces the incidence of HIV transmission among injection drug users, it’s endorsed by the World Health Organization as a lifesaver for both users and their families, and it costs taxpayers many times less than HIV treatment. (Conversely, a recent study indicates that arresting HIV-positive drug users actually heightens risks of overdosing and spreading the disease.) Syringe exchange programs also save lives by training clients in confronting overdose situations, and by providing easier, more informed access to treatment. These steps are proven to reduce heroin-related harm – unlike upping mandatory sentences for distribution crimes, or arresting kids for bicycling on the sidewalk.

The “war on drugs” metaphor may have been withdrawn from official circulation, but the prisoners are still being taken and the casualties are still mounting. We can’t just start putting “drug war” in quotes and absolve ourselves of responsibility for the carnage. We need to peel back years of social conditioning that have instilled an impulse to run for the criminal legal system whenever the drug alarm strikes. And we must also challenge that alarmism itself – a phenomenon that has stoked decades of racist policy, sent millions to prison and torn apart millions of families.

If we are truly committed to ending the drug war, we must not let our intoxication with “epidemics” – and our entrenched drug war morality myths – trump our responsibility to humanity.