Racially Coded Language Hurts Everyone Who Struggles With Addiction

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February 19, 2014 - By Kassandra Frederique

I've learned in my four years in the drug policy reform field that if you wait long enough, the same ill-informed and racist drug war propaganda will be rehashed over and over again. As I read the New York Times this weekend, drug war propaganda leaped off the page in the article “Addicted in Staten Island.” The article read, in part: "across the country, one of the most significant social shifts of the 21st century has been the migration of drug use from centers of urban poverty to places that are suburban, white and middle- or marginally middle-class."

Not only is this not true, the racially coded language is detrimental to all those that struggle with addiction.

Drug use and addiction occur in communities of all color; in fact, data constantly show that drug use and drug selling are fairly consistent across racial lines. The real difference is in the way society treats different communities dealing with addiction.

In fact, sociologist Troy Duster laid out these facts over 40 years ago in his 1970 book, Legislation and Morality: Drugs, Crime, and Law. His esteemed colleagues, Harry Levine and Craig Reinarman wrote in their 2004 biography, Troy Duster: A Biography in History, "[Duster] showed that when the demographics of opiate addiction shifted, so did its definition and the law.

More specifically, "when addicts were predominantly white, middle class...addiction was a health problem dealt with privately by physicians. But when addiction spread among more “disreputable” groups like poor young men, it was redefined as a crime problem dealt with publicly by imprisonment."

Recent media attention to opioids as a problems facing white, suburban communities has led to a national discussion of harm reduction, treatment and public health approaches versus the mass incarceration approach that was the response to drug crises coded as Black or Latino.  It’s time we stop letting racism drive drug policy and build upon science, reality and compassion for our fellow person. We know what works—Good Samaritan laws, naloxone, reality based drug education, and safer injection facilities. If we want to save lives and build healthier communities, we must reject the prohibition frame work and stop using race, class, sexuality, and subjective morality to dictate how we respond to overdose and other health issues.

For his part in drug policy reform, Troy Duster was ahead of his time in 1970. He understood the roles race and class played in the War on Drugs in 1970 even before President Richard Nixon declared the War in 1971. His trailblazing book laid the foundation for the future works of Clarence Lusane, Michelle Alexander, and Dr. Carl Hart.

Mr. Duster's work helps us recognize the pervasive ways racism is the bedrock of the War on Drugs.  If we can see it better we can fight it better. It is a powerful feeling to know that the road we travel today was paved by Mr. Troy Duster, and it assures me that I am right where I need to be – working to end the war on drugs.

Kassandra Frederique is a New York policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.

*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance, New York Policy Office.

Photo of Troy Duster used with permission of the American Sociological Association.

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