When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.
And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.
“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered,” said Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, better known as the nation’s drug czar. “They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”
Mr. Botticelli, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 26 years, speaks to some of these parents regularly.
Their efforts also include lobbying statehouses, holding rallies in Washington and starting nonprofit organizations, making these mothers and fathers part of a growing backlash against the harsh tactics of traditional drug enforcement. These days, in rare bipartisan or even nonpartisan agreement, punishment is out and compassion is in.
And if you're wondering why all of a sudden criminal justice reform, mandatory sentencing revisions, marijuana legalization, treatment programs and the war on drugs all are major campaign issues in an election year when for 30 years it was "lock them up and throw away the key", then you now know just how bad the nation's heroin epidemic has gotten in white America.
The presidential candidates of both parties are now talking about the drug epidemic, with Hillary Rodham Clinton hosting forums on the issue as Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina tell their own stories of loss while calling for more care and empathy.
Last week, President Obama traveled to West Virginia, a mostly white state with high levels of overdoses, to discuss his $133 million proposal to expand access for drug treatment and prevention programs. The Justice Department is also preparing to release roughly 6,000 inmates from federal prisons as part of an effort to roll back the severe penalties issued to nonviolent drug dealers in decades past.
And in one of the most striking shifts in this new era, some local police departments have stopped punishing many heroin users. In Gloucester, Mass., those who walk into the police station and ask for help, even if they are carrying drugs or needles, are no longer arrested. Instead, they are diverted to treatment, despite questions about the police departments’ unilateral authority to do so. It is an approach being replicated by three dozen other police departments around the country.
Suddenly, the war on drugs is ruining the lives of Tyler, Madison and Hunter and not just Tyrone, Marisha and Hector. Suddenly, zero tolerance for those people has turned into "Well, we have to have compassion for these sick souls that need help."
Suddenly, lawmakers and cops give a damn about serious criminal justice reform. It took until the war on drugs finally escaped the battlefields of the inner cities they tried to contain it in and burned out the exurbs and the private schools and the galleria malls.
It took until the lives of the victims actually mattered, you see. Black lives, well. Not so much.
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that there's finally real steps being taken on the criminal justice reform front and not just empty talk. I'm glad users are getting real help, and real dollars are being spent to treat the core of addiction and not just the symptoms. I'm glad we're doing something about non-violent drug offenders and legalization.
But this should have happened 20 years ago. And one of the major reasons it didn't happen 20 years ago is a guy by the name of Bill Clinton.
And his wife.
Let's not forget that.