Some More Worthy Than Others: Where Was Overdose Protection For Drug Users During The Crack Epidemic?

Some More Worthy Than Others: Where Was Overdose Protection For Drug Users During The Crack Epidemic?

overdose protection

A woman sleeps on a sidewalk in a neighborhood known as Crackland in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 25, 2011

Recently, New York City opened two overdose prevention centers (OPC), allowing drug users to receive medical care and services to prevent drug overdose deaths. In other words, drug users are sanctioned to legally consume illegal drugs in the presence of a medical professional.

OPCs are an example of public policy that honors the humanity of drug users. This is a radical change from the traditionally punitive measures for dealing with drug users.

OPCs have very practical benefits as well for drug users and the community alike. The positive impact of OPCs includes managing hundreds of overdoses and reducing drug-related overdose death rates; reducing public disorder, reducing public injecting, and increasing public safety; reducing HIV and Hepatitis C risk behavior (i.e. syringe sharing, unsafe sex); and saving costs due to a reduction in disease, overdose deaths, and need for emergency medical services.

Public policy that honors the lives of drug users ought to be welcomed. However, I cannot help but wonder where was this life-affirming public policy for drug users during the crack epidemic, the majority of whom were Black?

While programs like these are important, I can’t help but consider that this program or policy is in place because of the face of the opioid epidemic: white people.

When speaking of opioid users, politicians have spoken of their friends and family who fell victim to the struggles of drug use; individuals worthy of all the resources and tools available to recover. Media coverage even, of the suburban and rural opioid “epidemic” of the 2000s, helped to draw a symbolic, and then a legal, distinction between (urban) heroin addiction and (suburban and rural) prescription opioid addiction (even after its progression to heroin addiction) that is reminiscent of the legal distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine of the 1980s-90s.

Meanwhile, Black people were thrown in jail in high numbers, even in the new millennium, for possessing crack, whereas 66 percent of crack users are either white or Latinx. America had a front seat to the mass incarceration of Black people weekly on copaganda shows like Cops

Certainly, New York City officials can argue that its OPCs will help an overwhelming number of drug users who are Black. According to city data, Black New Yorkers had the highest rate of overdose death and the largest absolute increase in rate from 2019 to 2020. However, according to the same data, fewer Black people died of a drug-related overdose when compared to white and Latinx individuals who died of an overdose from 2017 to 2020.

The same is true concerning opioid-related overdoses over that time span, including heroin. But more Black people overdosed on cocaine (presumably crack) than white or Latinx users. However, media attention (and restorative public policy) has centered on white opioid users.

None of this is to say that drug use should continue to be criminalized. What it is to say is that Black crack cocaine users were always human and deserving of the same humane approaches to drug policy that white opioid users are afforded since the emerging opioid crisis. It’s because Black drug users are seen as criminal deviants whereas white drug users are seen as friends and family.

Black people with crack in their possession were subject to disproportionate mandatory minimums that help set off the mass incarceration epidemic. 

White people shouldn’t be thrown in jail and disregarded. But that’s what happened to Black people in the 1980s and 1990s. If drug policy is taking a more compassionate turn, policymakers should make things right for those incarcerated unfairly. Black people must coerce political candidates to make this a priority.

Rann Miller is the director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives as well as a high school social studies teacher for a school district located in Southern New Jersey. He’s also a freelance writer and founder of the Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ .

Photo: Some More Worthy Than Others: Where Was Overdose Protection For Drug Users During The Crack Epidemic?
In this June 25, 2011 photo, a woman sleeps on a sidewalk in a neighborhood popularly known as “Crackland” in downtown Sao Paulo. Two decades after the U.S. emerged from the worst of its own crack epidemic, Brazilian authorities are watching the drug spread across their country. They have far fewer resources to deal with it. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

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