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Learning Our Lesson: The Government’s Role in Drug Epidemics

By Emma Lehtonen ’19,  Co-Chair of the Political Science Club

Immaculate Heart students recently met with speakers from the organization Freedom from Chemical Dependence (FCD).  The information shared with students was a shift from the scare tactics and “just say no” that many students who have received talks on drug use and alcohol abuse have gotten used to.  But, unfortunately, there is another part of the conversation that hasn’t had the same comprehensive shift: drug policies and reform.

Just as our parents were bombarded by the hysteria caused by the so-called “crack epidemic” in the 80s, today we constantly hear of the “opioid epidemic” on the news. Hard-drugs like heroin were once considered an isolated problem, but addiction is beginning to affect more and more people, both directly and indirectly. Yet, still, there is little understanding of the government’s role in combating drugs, and the methods and effects of government action remains controversial.  

While President Richard Nixon was the one who coined the phrase “War on Drugs,”  it flourished under President Ronald Reagan. In October 1982,  Reagan officially declared the War on Drugs, claiming that drugs were a threat to national security. Intensifying the hysteria already caused by the crack epidemic,  the War on Drugs wasn’t just a phrase. It became a literal war, highlighted by the use of battering-rams and tanks during raids. The problem is closer to home than we may imagine, as black communities in Los Angeles were most affected by crack and subsequent government action.   

The crack epidemic is still an especially controversial subject in the United States. There are still many unanswered questions regarding the government’s role in the epidemic, particularly the debate over whether or not the CIA used some of the drug money to fund Nicaraguan Contras fighting communism. These lingering questions and lack of transparency have bothered Americans. But the things we do know have bothered us as well.  

In 1986, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which imposed mandatory minimums for drug offenses. The controversy surrounding this act stems from the punishment disparity. Crack become much more punishable than its more expensive counterpart, powder cocaine. Since crack was more popular in black communities and cocaine more popular in white communities, this sparked one of many allegations of racism that Nixon, Reagan, and future presidents faced.  While new information has come out suggesting they specifically targeted black communities, these remain among the unanswered questions surrounding the issue.

Crack destroyed black communities. But, so did government response and law enforcement.  Harsh laws and the criminalization of addiction meant that children weren’t just losing parents to crack, they were losing them to prison. The “tough on crime” attitude fueled mass incarceration, and to this day remains a huge problem that mostly affects black and other minority populations.  The post-incarceration punishments, such as lack of voting rights and removal of public benefits, have further disenfranchised black communities. These factors led to civil rights leader Michelle Alexander to right her book The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and has also led to mass incarceration being compared to slavery. In many ways, incarceration is the adaptation of racism after the abolition of slavery and segregation. Whether intentional or not, harsh drugs laws played, and continue to play, a major role in mass incarceration, for which these administrations are responsible. 

But how does this relate to drug prevention education?  

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LAPD Battering Ram (LA Times)

At the same time her husband was conducting the War on Drugs, Nancy Reagan became famous for her “just say no” campaign.  Around this time, the program D.A.R.E was founded in Los Angeles, baring a similar sentiment.  This just further hurt the issue of combating drug abuse.  Instead of acknowledging chemical dependence for what it is, a mental and emotional health issue, it depicted it as a free-will issue, and addicts as morally weak.  

This is why FCD represents a much needed, and long overdue, shift in the conversation. But still, the conversation over the causes and response to the problem is lagging.

How does this compare to today?  Now, the focus is on the opioid crisis, not crack.  Many accuse collaboration between Congress, lobbyists, and  pharmaceutical companies for exacerbating the crisis. One of these people is former DEA agent Joe Rannazzisi, who the media has labeled a whistleblower. He and others have specifically targeted Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, among other private pharmaceutical companies, for driving the epidemic.

In October 2017, The Washington Post’s editorial board pin-pointed legislation passed by Congress and signed by then-President Barack Obama for taking a friendlier stance towards big pharma.  This hindered the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to regulate distribution of prescription narcotics. Big pharma has engaged in the over-prescription of potent drugs like OxyContin, even for minor pains, all to turn a profit. Doctors are also being blamed for collaborating with big pharma in the unnecessary prescription of opioids. These extremely rich and powerful companies hire lobbyist to influence government officials, which has proved successful.  Once patients stop being prescribed opioids, many turn to its illegal counterpart, heroin. While Purdue has paid millions in damages for “mislabeling”  their products, they continue to operate, and companies like them have largely avoided substantial punishment.  

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Los Angeles, 1980 (Blvck Archives)

While addicts and small-scale drug dealer have and continue to face harsh punishments, the biggest drug dealers in the United States, that is big pharma, not only avoid fitting punishment, but receive the favor of Washington.  

 

While the effects of the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs are obvious in retrospect, we are still in the midst of the opioid crisis, and the full effects of the crisis and government response are not yet clear. In October, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.  While the hope is that the Trump administration actually will treat the crisis as a public health issue instead of a crime issue, that hope seems unfounded. Comments made by his administration, especially from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, advocate extremely harsh drug laws and demonize addicts.

Will the United States go down the same road again? The prospects look grim.

 

 

photo from NPR

 

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