Heroin, Criminal Justice Reform, and Race

There’s been a lot of talk in the news about an opioid/heroin epidemic in our country. And with this epidemic, many have begun rethinking long-term incarceration for drug addicts. It is certainly time for this reform. Make no mistake: locking people up for years, decades, or a lifetime for an illness – an addiction – is an inhumane, copout of an answer. But it’s hard not to notice that the calls to end mass incarceration of drug addicts came in response to a reported epidemic that has impacted higher income people and, in particular, white people. So, even as I whole-heartedly applaud these reform efforts, it is important to also consider the racial undertones.

For decades, the war on drugs disparately impacted black people. Although white Americans use drugs more frequently than black Americans, blacks are locked up for drug offenses at a much higher rate. There is unequal treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system – from police stops, to arrests, to charging, to plea deals, to sentencing. In fact, a recently released interview of one of President Nixon’s aides candidly admitted that the war on drugs began as a way to clamp down on black people. The result? Mass incarceration of black people in prison that is truly staggering: almost 1 in 12 black men aged 25 to 54 are presently in prison, the vast majority for low-level drug crimes.

But with opioids, a demographics shift occurred. The CDC reports that in 2014, almost 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids. That huge number reflects the fact that the use of heroin and prescription painkillers has dramatically increased across the country among white people in particular. The chart below shows that the usage rate among white people jumped 114% from 2002 to 2013. In the last five years, it jumped 260%. While heroin is a dangerous and prevalent drug among all races, it has particularly surged among white people. Studies show that this is in part because of a bias among doctors against prescribing painkillers to black people. For many people, the addiction evolves with a medical problem, a prescribed pain killer, a pain killer addiction, and then eventually heroin, which is a much cheaper way of satisfying the addiction.

With the white surge in heroin use, there has been a dramatic rise of heroin-related overdose deaths, and that has grabbed headlines. The New York Times reports that in 2014, the overdose death rate for whites ages 25 to 34 was five times its level in 1999, and the rate for 35- to 44-year-old whites tripled during that period. In most states, heroin possession means a jail sentence, not rehabilitation. And, of course, being in prison does nothing to ease the addiction or the user habits, leading most addicts to reoffend when they are released from prison.

So, now after decades of mass incarceration of (mostly minority) drug offenders, there are calls to re-think how the criminal justice system should handle drug addiction. President Obama just called for $1.1 billion in funding to address the heroin epidemic. His laudable goal is to provide drug treatment to everyone who wants it. Many states are also emphasizing rehabilitation rather than incarceration for addicts.

It is worth repeating: moving away from mass incarceration of drug addicts and towards rehabilitation and help is an important and worthy goal. It’s just noteworthy, sad, and infuriating that it took so long. Only when the scourge of addiction profoundly impacted white people did our governing elite finally decide to offer more nuanced reactions to this complex problem. #blacklivesmatter






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