crack addition | Addict's Helpline

Opioid Vs. Crack Addiction: A Racial Double Standard?

It’s been years in the making, but finally lawmakers and government agencies are jumping in to slow the progress of the opioid epidemic – a crisis that kills more than 28,000 persons in the U.S. each year, and has overtaken car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death. It all started with the mass marketing and prescribing of painkilling drugs like Oxycontin.

But at the time, the powers-that-be showed little concern for sufferers when crack cocaine was affecting persons in a similar manner in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

While we cradle those who unwittingly got addicted to prescription drugs, our solution for crack addicts mostly consisted of locking them up for as long as possible.

crack addiction | Addicts HelplineAnd truthfully, I believe we are starting to do the right thing by heroin and opiate addicts – but are we really lifting the stigma of addiction, or is this just a race issue?

Are we becoming more sympathetic, or just showing our true feelings as a society about which lives matter?

Take for instance the project Advocates for Opioid Recovery, a joint political effort drummed up by Newt Gingrich and Patrick Kennedy. Regarding the plight of opioid addicts, Gingrich sounds pretty darn sympathetic:

“There’s this myth that everybody can just will themselves off of it. Imagine that we said, ‘You know, we shouldn’t give people insulin – they ought to will themselves to the correct diet and exercise and giving insulin makes them weaker.”

And he’s not really wrong. It’s just a vastly different perspective than what we’ve seen from lawmakers and law enforcement is the past. Also, an except from a Time article put forth by Gingrich, Kennedy, and Van Jones reads:

“Studies show that opioid addiction is a chronic brain disease to which some people are genetically predisposed.”

I guess that’s not really been the case for crack addicts. In fact, Gingrich once called for these addicts to exert more self-control. Compare that to his statements above.

Back then, Gingrich, along with other politicians, actively advocated for more arrests and stiffer sentencing. Their tactics increased the racial divide, and gave people something to fear – because that’s what politicians do.

There was little talk about the problems these people faced, the stress, the poverty, or anything. But now, many of us view opioid addiction as so incidental that it couldn’t possibly be their fault. How most people feel about crack addiction, then and now, couldn’t be farther from that perspective.

The War on Crack Addiction

crack addiction | Addict's HelplinePresidential Candidate Hillary Clinton has devised a $10 billion plan to fight opioid addiction and prevent overdoses. This plan includes components largely geared toward prevention, treatment, and recovery.

Conversely, in 1989, drug czar William Bennett announced a $7.9 billion plan to combat the currently drug epidemic, but 70% of that would be spent on hiring more law enforcement personnel and building prisons.

Sidenote: Because that’s what America needs. The answer to the prison overpopulation is – build more prisons. Right.

Then, a bill passed in 1994 that added more fuel to the fire. Sentences for crack possession and dealing were increased, and in a few years, enhanced law enforcement presence loomed over and aggressively policed black communities.

And then, in 1995, the defense department began donating military equipment to police departments. Donations include armored carriers, rocket launchers, laser scopes, and more. By 1997, they had given law enforcement over a million dollars’ worth of equipment.

Drug Policy | Addicts HelplineSo our answer to drug addiction was this: intimidate, brutalize, and arrest. Compare that to now, as have begun to give our addicts harm-reducing and abuse-deterring drugs. I can’t even image that happening for crack addiction.

And let’s not forget about the media swirl around crack babies. That was a sensational topic that made people very angry at mothers. Today’s opioid-addicted mom just seems much more forgivable.

All this did nothing to help crack-infested communities. It only served to create and exacerbate stereotypes, and enhance images of the scary black male, which is still pervasive to this day. And it put a lot of people in jails.

At the peak of the war on crack addiction, there was a lot of discussion and media coverage. However, it just didn’t elicit much empathy. It was almost as if the gritty reality of it made it just too hard to stomach.

In 1986, a Gallup poll asked “Which one of the following do you think is the MOST serious problem for society today: Marijuana, alcohol abuse, heroin, crack, other forms of cocaine or other drugs?”

At 42%, “crack” and “other forms of cocaine” beat “alcohol abuse” by eight percentage points – even though there were far more alcoholics and alcohol abusers than crack addicts. Heroin wasn’t even on the radar.

Is Race, Socioeconomic Status, Or The Substance Itself?

The other issue is that crack addicts are viewed differently that cocaine addicts. Crack is a lot cheaper – hence the reason why you see more people doing it who live in poverty. Powder cocaine is more or less a luxury, and is more a “white drug,” if you will.

crack addiction | Addict's HelplineAccording to the Drug Enforcement Agency, by the late 1970s there was a massive importation of cocaine powder into the U.S., which caused the price of drugs to drop as much as 80%.

In response, dealers starting converted their product to crack, or a rock-like substance that could be smoked.

These rocks could be broken and sold in smaller quantities, and to more people at a larger profit. Basically, it was cheap, easy to produce, and very profitable for drug dealers.

In addition to the stigma that crack addiction incurs, versus powder cocaine, there has traditionally been a huge sentencing disparity between the two. Again, a reflection of our attitude toward blacks, or persons of lower socioeconomic status?

Fortunately, the Fair Sentencing Act passed in 2010 was supposed to take care of that, but I’m not sure how it’s playing out. There are still some huge problems not addressed by the bill, such as reduced sentencing for persons prosecuted under state law – which occurs the majority of the time.

So where is the stigma originating? Is it black-related, income-related, or something to do with the seediness of the substance itself? Methamphetamine is big problem in white rural communities, and truthfully, we don’t really show much sympathy for meth addicts, either. Compare that to regular amphetamines, often taken by presumably well-educated college students when they are cramming for finals.


Of note, crack use is now more prevalent among whites than blacks – although its still largely viewed as black drug.

crack addiction | Addicts HelplineWhile I suspect that race has a lot to do with it, I admit that in the past, as a society we’ve had little sympathy for addicts, in any shape or form. Maybe this sudden outpouring of compassion and understanding means our views about addiction are finally evolving.

I just hope we continue, and choose to consider all persons, regardless of color, social status, or substance-of-choice, as equally deserving of compassion and outreach.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

Addict’s Helpline is committed to helping all persons with substance abuse in a kind, accepting, and supportive environment.



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