Heroin: White People and Black People

I read an article on Fox recently with the headline “Face of Heroin Addiction Now Young, White and Suburban” (you can read the article here). The article was written after the release of a small study of people seeking treatment for opiate addiction. The major point of it is this:

Today, the average heroin user is 23 years old and tends to live in a suburban or rural area. More than 90 percent of the study subjects who reported that they began abusing heroin in the past decade were white. However, the study authors acknowledged that their research was limited, since they only analyzed participants seeking treatment for their addiction.

There are two points here, and neither of them should be considered new nor news. The first point is that a lot of young white people are using opiates. When “Glee” star Cory Monteith died last summer, the articles about “the new face of heroin” abounded. We’ve known this for about a dozen years. The proliferation of prescription drugs introduced a new class (and generation) of people to opiates. When those prescription opiates became too costly, they switched to heroin. The second point is that most of the people that get into treatment for opiates are white. On average, white people have more money, better insurance, less stigma and more access to treatment. Of course more of the people in treatment are white people. It’s this second point that really bothers me.

The heroin epidemic is not new. I’ve said so many times. Richard Pryor had a huge problem with cocaine, and it unfortunately played out in the national spotlight in the early 1980’s. He discussed his cocaine problem and how white people got caught up in it during one of his shows:

“Y’all remember?  Y’all used to drive through our neighbor hoods and shit and go, ‘Oh, look at that.  Isn’t that terrible.’ Then you’d get home, right, and your 14 year old’d be fucked up, and you’d go, ‘OH MY GOD!  IT’S AN EPIDEMIC!’..”

For decades, poor and minority communities have been ravaged by heroin use. Little was done to help and the plight of the addicted in those groups got worse. As a result, the economic and living conditions of their communities deteriorated as well. Addicted people are very likely to have addicted kids and the plague spread. Regardless of one’s moral views of this subject (or the value you place on poor and/or minority lives), there can be no mistaking the devastating economic costs of letting addiction spread and thrive. It has effected white suburbia in the 21st century, and now schools, parents, the media, law enforcement and politicians are noticing and attempting to take action.  Richard Pryor saw this happen 30 years ago with cocaine and spoke about it.

Paul Mooney has talked about this type of thing as well, but he gave a more apt-fitting name (or meme) to it:

The great political comedian Paul Mooney made his bones by laying in the cut between American democratic ideals and American behavior.  A mentor and inspiration to his friend Richard Pryor, Mooney’s stock-in-trade is a canny ability to thread the truth between ongoing and established hypocrisies — to make us see the pathologies that are still at the core of our decision-making and societal array.

One of his best routines involves the “nigger wake-up call,” that signal moment when the rest of America finally understands something, and comes to resent and acknowledge that which black and brown America has internalized and tolerated for generations

This last section was copied verbatim from David Simon’s post “The Nigger Wake-Up Call”, which he published last summer after the NSA home-spying revelations.

Regardless of race and class, we need to address the heroin and other opiates epidemic. If we only address it in the white and wealthy communities, then we have done a terrible, terrible job. We need to make sure that we implement sound policies and create excellent programs for all.


Addendum (6/13): Here is a story from today about a drug sweep that recently took place in Northern NJ. As you can tell by the photos, an overwhelmingly majority of those arrested are young and white. Unsurprisingly, they will be offered treatment instead of incarceration. Another salient fact is that despite the changing demographics of heroin use, people travel into desolated inner cities to buy their drugs. If we don’t address the problem in the inner cities, those markets will continue to function and the work that is done in the suburbs will be ultimately fruitless.

The end of the article touches upon another sore subject: for those that live in Paterson (largely poor, largely minority), they don’t get that option. Their option is jail.