Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

Addicted Black Lives Matter (Too)

President Obama visits Rutgers Law School in Newark

When President Obama visited the Rutgers Law School on November 2nd, it represented the startling achievement of two dream-like goals.  First was the sheer specter of the occasion—seeing our president suddenly in our home, flanked by new flags and the familiar bars that adorn our atrium’s spiral stairs.  Second was the occasion itself: to meet in a roundtable with formerly incarcerated persons and then to deliver a speech intended to reverse—by executive order—one of the single greatest public policy failures in American history.

Many voices had filled this space, but not his.  The president appeared out of nowhere familiar, from behind black curtains, as if lifted down into the space from an invisible elevator we didn’t know existed near the vending machines.  Deep into his final term, President Obama entered the stage with that jaunt in his step some of us enjoy privately, serious as family, a swivel in his shoulders, hands at the ready to take on a subject as serious as the lives too often missing from earlier speeches.  He pointed at us for emphasis.  He looked aside to collect himself.  The affair seemed only as private as the forgotten souls of an issue that has ravaged communities at the margins of a presidency.  He spoke directly to the racial dimensions of the crisis.  If there were teleprompters, I couldn’t see them.

In his remarks, President Obama spoke forcefully about the problems of mass incarceration and the failure upon reentry to give convicted felons a full reprieve after serving their time. 

Everything we do, he explained, should be designed toward the goal of  reducing crime and ensuring that “everybody has a chance to contribute.”  The goal was to recognize the humanity of people who had done bad things, to advance the idea that they could do good things again and that the contributions of their lives were not finished.  “We need to make sure Americans who paid their debt to society can earn a second chance,” he told the assembled folks in our house. 

President Obama’s two solutions were groundbreaking but not earthshattering.  First, he pledged grants for “returning citizens” to take advantage of education, job training, housing, legal help and children’s services.  Second, he endorsed a “ban the box” policy on federal employment applications, eliminating the requirement that applicants indicate that they have a felony conviction on their record.  The event also called attention to Senator Cory Booker’s efforts to win bipartisan support for a bill reducing mandatory minimum sentences and providing job training, drug treatment and early release for some federal inmates.

In the wake of police killings of unarmed black people and college protests over racism on campus, the symbolism that day was poignant: three black men—a president, a senator and a mayor—talking straight about the devastating effects of decades-long policies that exacerbated racial inequality in black communities across the country.  Drug addiction—and the crime that goes with it—was finally understood as a public health problem.

This revelation in public policy was made possible by a third development unmentioned that day—the interest convergence among crime, drugs and whites. 

In 1971, The War on Drugs announced by President Richard Nixon became an expensive and punitive reaction to heroin addiction in inner-city neighborhoods, a pattern that continued until recently, as generations of politicians proved their toughness on crime.  The junkies and then the crackheads were presumed to be black.  From New York’s Rockefeller drug laws to President Bill Clinton’s Omnibus

We can acknowledge—and we should—that our willingness to make the turn toward a public health approach would not be possible without the harsh lessons taught upon the lives and addictions of non-white bodies.

Crime Bill, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have responded to African-American drug use and accompanying crime with the harshest police tactics, the steepest penalties, the longest sentences and, in many states, the eternal penalty of disenfranchisement from the democratic process.  Notwithstanding the enormous cost to black families (a striking percentage of whom have family in the criminal justice system), the financial cost to the nation’s taxpayers has finally tipped the scales of compassion to lighter penalties for non-violent offenders. 

We discovered that we can no longer afford to be so tough on crime.

But the other interest convergence responsible for the attitudinal shift toward a public health approach is the color of addiction itself.  Heroin is back.  It returned a few years ago but this time has taken up almost exclusive residence in suburban and rural areas.  Its users—just as addicted, just as prone to irresponsible, desperate and criminal behavior as before—are overwhelmingly white.   Suddenly, get-tough Republican presidential candidates sound notes of compassion.  Governor Chris Christie (who did not attend the president’s Rutgers speech) has invoked his family and college roommate as reasons for a compassionate response from government.  Carla Fiorina speaks poignantly about the loss of a child to a drug overdose.  Addiction has come home where for many it is now experienced as a transforming and insidious disease.

It was always a disease.  President Obama visited the drug rehab organization Integrity House on his trip to Newark because most people in prison are either drug or alcohol addicted or both. 

The history of the neighborhood where I grew up in Harlem-Washington Heights could be defined by the phases of addiction.  Located at the edge of the heroin kingpin Nicky Barnes’s empire, I remember the sight of junkies at curbside, nodding into oblivion, suspended in impossible back twists, fresh off a fix.  As a child, we learned to avoid them when they were hungry, ridiculed their rotting teeth and worried when we heard that someone we know might be caught up.  A junkie in the family was a curse.  For a few years, things grew quiet.  Then crack arrived in the early 1980s.  I can recall the frantic walk of a crackhead, the scratching at the skin, the wild of their eyes.  Possessed beyond repossession, they seemed to steal anything they could find.  A crackhead in the family was a curse.  You didn’t worry if someone you knew had become one.  Crackheads came to you.  Along with the violence.  Our street broke records for murders in the city.  

You knew it was a disease because people you knew and loved could be transformed and disfigured by it with little warning, whole families consumed by its maddening grip, each facing the same ominous possibility: overcome or be overcome by it. 

Much but not all of that is gone now.  There will be drugs there as long as the neighborhood sits so close to the Westside Highway and the George Washington Bridge where suburban kids can drive in and out quickly.  The drug abuse was never just an inner-city matter for blacks, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Columbians.  There, like everywhere, it was fueled by large numbers of white users, some recreational, others severely addicted.  The latter came and stayed.  They may have come from different places, facing different odds, but they eventually shared in the horror. 

While swaths of each generation went to prison for their drug addictions and related behavior, there was a strain of thinking in inner-city neighborhoods that drug addiction was a semi-rational response to social marginalization.  On the one hand, you faced the needs of your family, high unemployment, neighborhood violence, discrimination and the acute feeling of being trapped.  It was hard to imagine success.  On the other was a desperate escape into opiated bliss.  Choosing the latter made a certain twisted sense.

As Richard Pryor’s junkie character famously tells the whino, “Tell me some of them old lies of yours.  Make me stop thinking about the truth.”

The thing about addiction of course is that it never ends and it never gets better.  Whatever is bad gets worse.  In that sense, it was not rational, but it was understandable that those on society’s cruelest margins would be most vulnerable to the disease when it was heroin in the 1960s and 70s and crack in the 1980s and 90s.

The costs to particular communities have been incalculable.  Tens of thousands of black and brown people have lost their lives to drug-related crime, possession of small amounts of narcotics or sales of the same.  Baltimore, Maryland, long considered the capital of heroin in the country, and famous for fictional portrayals like “The Wire,” has experienced a heroin rebirth affecting as many as 60,000 addicts.  Divided from their families, unable to contribute to their communities, they are either gone forever or locked up in punitive institutions where education, mental health treatment and drug rehabilitation have gone wanting for decades. 

Other than emancipation from slavery—remembered now in the 150th anniversary of the 13th amendment to the Constitution—it is hard to imagine a more thankful goodbye from bondage than that which occurred at the close of the heroin and crack epidemics of the late last century.

During that period, the United States policy towards drug addiction erred on the side of criminalization at nearly every turn—from policing strategies, to school discipline, to sentencing mandates and to appropriations for prison construction.  It set in place norms of community-police relations that will be hard to break.  It flirted only briefly with compassion.  For example, the current unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody is tied directly to the city’s history with heroin and the policies used to confront it.  African-American and Latino communities have long understood that there is no reasonable counterfactual for how their government has approached the disease: This would not have been the response had the users been white.

Or as Richard Pryor once joked about the criminal courts: “You go down there looking for justice, that’s just what you find: Just us.”

But now the users are white.  Of course, the users have always been mostly white.  Many of them, from ages past, are familiar with the public health approach, because they had the resources and the desperate loved ones, who made sure that treatment was the best option.  Rehab, rehab and more rehab.  The attraction of heroin began somewhere, but it really kicked in with the sense of “enlightenment” of the first high the devil gives you “for free.”  As Scott Weiland, the Stone Temple Pilots musician put it in a 2005 Esquire interview:

Once I started shooting, I realized I'd made a career decision; you can't hold on anymore to regular life. It's like your life becomes a friend dangling over the edge of a building. You're trying to hold on, but the hand is slipping from your grasp, just slipping and slipping, and you just know that you're going to lose that person. And that person is your former self.

Weiland died recently of a heroin overdose in his band’s bus at age 48.  Experiences like his—from the confines of a comfortable Ohio suburb to binges on the hard rock tour—gives the president, the senator and the mayor an opportunity to change the conversation.  What does a public health approach to drug addiction mean?

A public health approach probably begins with a different, compassionate recognition of the addict’s agency as a human being and the institutions that can affect her agency for a greater good.  This means changing the law so that when it first sets eye on the addict, it sees a human in trouble, not a human to punish.  A public health approach employs the research on addiction to recognize the typical behavior of addicts as susceptible to reform and healing, rather than to suppression and removal.  Rehabilitation, not incarceration.  The institutions become hospitals and treatment centers, rather than police cars, courtrooms and cells.  The professionals involved are counselors, mental health providers, doctors and occupational therapists, not detectives, prosecutors, judges and corrections officers.

And of course the goals will be different, too.  We will perhaps speak of recovery, not re-entry.  The fundamental difference is like that of a sick loved one who gets well: we always wished they had the strength to stay with us because they were always one of us.

Other countries in the developed world, such as Sweden and Germany, have known the advantages of a public health approach to drug addiction for decades.  It’s fair to ask whether Americans are only discovering the benefit of this approach because the addicts are now white.  That we cannot know for sure.  But we can acknowledge—and we should—that our willingness to make this turn would have been impossible were it not for the harsh lessons taught upon the lives and addictions of non-white bodies.  We wish the lesson might have been learned earlier when it would have save the lives and livelihoods of countless addicts of color and their families.  We are glad it is finally happening now.