Earlier this month, five Republican presidential contenders addressed a New Hampshire forum concerned with a crisis swamping certain regions of the country, including New England: heroin addiction. The candidates spoke passionately, some sharing personal experiences, according to news reports.
Jeb Bush spoke of his family’s turmoil as his daughter Noelle, now 38 and in recovery, struggled with an addiction to prescription drugs and cocaine. “What I learned was that the pain that you feel when you have a loved one who has addiction challenges and kind of spirals out of control is something that is shared with a whole lot of people,” he said.
Carly Fiorina also talked about her family’s struggles; her stepdaughter, Lori Ann, died at 34 after years of battling drug and alcohol abuse.
“… As Lori grew progressively sicker, the sparkle, the potential, the possibilities that had once filled her life — disappeared from behind her eyes,” she said.
This new frankness and sympathy concerning the physical, emotional and financial costs of drug addiction comes as white middle-class Americans have found their lives upended by the emergence of heroin as the drug of choice for their children and grandchildren. Nationwide, the number of deaths from heroin rocketed from fewer than 2,000 in 2001 to more than 10,000 in 2014, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And experts say that nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.
As a result of their experience, there has been a stark change in public perceptions of drug abuse. You see it not only in the more sympathetic rhetoric on the campaign trail, but also in the less aggressive methods of law enforcement and the softer penalties meted out by legislative bodies. Police chiefs now speak of addiction as a medical and psychological problem that deserves treatment, not incarceration. And parents insist that their children be treated as victims, not as perpetrators.
If this signals an end to the wretched, misguided and punitive war on drugs, I welcome it. Still, I find it heartbreaking that the nation didn’t have the clearheadedness, the courage and the compassion to see addiction as something other than a crime during the 1980s, when crack was the scourge of poor black neighborhoods.
Back then, lawmakers, especially conservatives, competed to see who could impose the harshest measures on poor drug addicts, and police officers routinely rounded up penny-ante dealers to bolster their arrest records. I can recall the wild accusations about crack users, the phony science, the harebrained predictions.
When Congress passed the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, it enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drugs and enshrined into law harsher penalties for the use of crack cocaine than for powdered cocaine, which was more likely to be used by whites. Offering up invalid assertions not backed by any data, lawmakers insisted that crack was more dangerous — as were its users.
Remember the dire warnings about crack babies? According to some so-called experts, the nation would see a wave of children born to crackhead moms, babies whose intelligence would always be stunted and whose physical capacities would always be limited. In fact, those pseudo-facts turned out to be gross exaggerations. Some babies were, in fact, born addicted, but, given appropriate medical care, most have turned out to be no different than their non-addicted peers.
The crack epidemic finally died away, but the after-effects of the misguided war on drugs linger in the lives of countless black men and women. That so-called war has drained the national treasury of billions of dollars, torn apart countless black families and decimated entire black neighborhoods.
It has made permanent second-class citizens, forever marginalized, of tens of thousands of black men and women because felony records have rendered them virtually unemployable. In some states, those with felony convictions are not even permitted to vote.
Now that we seem to have finally figured out that addicts deserve alternatives to prison, perhaps we can find a way to help those who bear the scars of the war on drugs. They are victims, too.
(Cynthia Tucker Haynes won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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