Throughout this blog, the question of why we choose to use drugs has continued to come up. We use drugs in social situations, to attain a religious or transcendent experience, as symbols of status, to help us reach fitness goals or alleviate stress or depression, and as a means of income.
The respective responses to each drug vary widely and depend largely on who the user is. In simple terms, there are some groups we are concerned about helping and there are some we are concerned about punishing. Others we simply ignore.
Who do we actually care about helping; because it’s a far cry from everyone.
It’s old news that drugs are often racialized and used to target minority groups, stripping them of power and status in society. Just as the Chinese were linked with the import and distribution of Opium, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Black Americans were branded “Cocaine Fiends” and a “Southern Menace” but the real menace was the threat to the jobs of the poor white communities who had to compete for jobs with a growing population of freed Blacks. As The New Jim Crow and 13th argue, criminalizing the use of opiates like crack cocaine and heroin allowed for the first wave of mass incarceration to reduce competition for jobs and create a cheap labor supply of prisoners forced to work to pay off ‘debts to society’.
Ironically, some scholars suggest that the use of opiates, particularly prescriptions (including heroin up until the early 20th Century) was more prevalent among white communities. The expense of the drug and medical care prevented many poor blacks from becoming addicted in the first place. First heralded as a miracle drug by Sigmund Freud in 1887 in Uber Cocoa before he later recanted his findings upon realizing the devastating addictive properties of cocaine, cocaine, and heroin became prevalent as medical treatments. Prescriptions of these highly addictive substances were not controlled until the passing of the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act.
Reality did not stop myths about the use of Black men spreading.
“News and medical reports frequently depicted black men on cocaine as frenzied, manic, homicidal, lascivious, excitable, criminal, and immoral. They were accused of raping white women, and killing white men.”
-Catherine Carstairs “The Most Dangerous Drug”
Today we still see heroin and cocaine as a problem particularly pernicious in poor, inner city communities. Despite decades of punitive responses failing as the War on Drugs cracked down, we continue to imprison an egregiously disproportionate number of black men in the federal prison system. We seem routinely shocked when a new heroin or cocaine epidemic strikes. When it hits rural white communities like Chillicothe, OH, the issues becomes one portrayed as a public health crisis.
But not all drugs impacting white communities illicit this response. When it comes to methamphetamines, the predominant user population is seen as “white trash.” Campaigns to discourage use of meth such as the “Faces of Meth” campaign tells a narrative that skews reality. The Faces of Meth campaign makes the worst outcomes of meth use seem routine, cementing the grotesque images of meth mouth in the minds of the American public and relying on the “eww” factor to discourage use of methamphetamines. It sparks questions from viewers such as “why would anyone do that to themselves,” which shows how campaigns such as this
“further embed the individual rational conception of drug use within dominant criminal justice discourses…”
-Linnemann and Wall – “Faces of Meth”
Furthermore, such campaigns allow spectators to “participate in punitive spectacles and engage in moral judgment from afar” (Linnemann and Wall). We dehumanize meth users, distance ourselves from them by labeling them as “White Trash,” connecting that image with rotting teeth and pock marks. Poor white rural communities are considered hotspots for meth. While we seem to go to great lengths to protect soccer moms hooked on the latests and greatest happy pills and make snappy parodies about the danger of prescription opioids, the conversations about methamphetamines are very different. A ‘moral panic’ over methamphetamine use began in the early 2000’s. Public perception is influenced by media and police actions. As police began to bust more meth labs, their actions helped construct what the public perceived to be a drug problem and drove legislation to focus more on manufacturing and less on use or treatment options (Omori “Moral Panics and Morality Policy).
A ‘moral panic’ over methamphetamine use began in the early 2000’s. Public perception is influenced by media and police actions. As police began to bust more meth labs, their actions helped construct what the public perceived to be a drug problem and drove legislation to focus more on manufacturing and less on use or treatment options (Omori “Moral Panics and Morality Policy).
Here’s the strange bit. We know that educational and therapeutic programs are far more successful than punitive legislation. So why do we continually turn to punitive legislation for minority and poor communities? And what is the point of this punishment? If it is to discourage behavior that is detrimental to society, our penal system as missed the mark. Our prisons are filled with people who have committed non-violent crimes, or even worse, are awaiting trial for non-violent crimes for years due to a painfully slow process. Despite the right to legal representation, many cannot afford a lawyer and those provided by the state are so busy they lack the time to sufficiently review and defend their client. With a gross disparity between white and black inmates, black men making up the majority of inmates today, the penal system reflects and reinforces the racial ideology that continues to divide our country and deprive people of the ability to even realistically pursue happiness (see The New Jim Crow for a detailed discussion of mass incarceration in the US).
Where do we go from here? The advice among scholars is to turn the current system on its head. For methamphetamines, Lindemann and Wall suggest reappropriating the Faces of Meth campaign to humanize users of meth. Dr. David Starks and Jihad, author of Street Life, both talked to our class about the importance of representation and increasing the number of Black voices adding to the conversation about the injustices surrounding racialized drug policies. The more we can connect and sympathize with a person, the more we understand the complicated nuances of the situation and question the underlying myths that have pervaded our society. We have to admit to ourselves that we are far from the land of the free or have anything close to equal opportunity. We need to raise awareness about the issue and discuss how to fundamentally alter the racialized belief system that has founded this country and have kept us a nation divided.