We have been here before — a raging epidemic of addiction that destroys lives, families and communities.
Who was on the front line in the 1990s, when the drug was crack and the addicts were mostly black? Drug czar William Bennett. His weapon was prosecution and prison.
Today, when the drugs are opioids and the addicts are mostly white? U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, a doctor, is out there, telling the country, “We need to see addiction as a chronic disease and not a moral failing.”
Imagine President George H.W. Bush saying those words, while holding a little baggie of crack cocaine during the height of America’s epidemic in 1989.
Maybe, the war on crack cocaine would have been $1 billion in treatment programs, not $1 billion in prosecution and prison costs.
Maybe, the number of people locked up for drug crimes would not have increased by 1,000 percent in three decades.
And maybe entire communities of color would not have been devastated.
And maybe we would have a way of dealing with the current addiction epidemic in our country.
But it did not happen that way.
Bush’s surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, used his position to go after tobacco addiction and champion HIV/AIDS education. But to bring him in on the crack wars? No way.
“We need more jails, more prisons, more courts and more prosecutors,” President Bush declared in 1989, when thousands of Americans were dying from drug overdoses or in bloody turf wars.
Of course, President Trump suggested executing drug dealers at a White House summit last month. He and other Republicans have been far more sympathetic to those caught in the grip of addiction.
Adams, who works for Trump, is not waving a baggie of illegal drugs, but an injector for overdose antidote naloxone. Last week he issued a rarely used official advisory, urging people with an addict in their family, school or medical practice to learn how to use naloxone because “keeping it within reach can save a life.” (The last advisory from a surgeon general was in 2005, when Richard H. Carmona warned pregnant women from drinking alcohol.)
At the National Prescription Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta last week, Adams said that for many people, the “opioid crisis is not only pressing, it’s personal. My own brother, as many of you know, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for stealing $200 to support his addiction.”
His predecessor in the job, Vivek H. Murthy, also made the case for compassion, urging rehabilitation, not jail. Understanding, not judgment. Treatment, not prosecution.
Why the difference?
“That’s easy. They care this time because it’s whites dying,” said Jerome, 62, a longtime fixture in an alley called Hanover Place in Northwest Washington, a block that used to be one of the most stubborn open-air drug markets in the nation’s capital.
“Back in the day? It was black folks. So who cared?” said Jerome, from his motorized wheelchair.
His phone rang. “Excuse me,” he told me.
“What’s up Fatboy?” he bellowed into the phone.
“That’s my twin,” he tells me.
“I’m here with a reporter. She’s asking about back-in-the-day. You know they want to hear ’bout what it was like, back in the day?”
He hung up with Fatboy after laughing about the irony of back-in-the-day and today, when most of the block is dominated by the construction of the Chapman Stables luxury condos, selling for $300,000 to $1 million for a unit. “At Chapman Stables, you can embrace a new style of historic living,” the promotional material promises.
“Those people will have no idea what this used to look like. It’s all about money. Money, money, money,” said Jerome, before whirring off to meet Fatboy.
The crack scourge largely stayed in the inner city. There were lots of headlines about pregnant addicts and crack babies. Even for them, prosecution was more often the solution over treatment.
Today, an average of 115 people die every day from an opioid overdose, most of them white and many in rural and suburban communities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black people are dying of overdoses too, some from heroin and others from cocaine, but you do not hear much about it.
“The black/white thing? Sure, I can go there,” said Barry B. Bell, 62, another fixture at Hanover Place. He has battled heroin addiction for years and has at least 2,000 stories about it, if you have the time to listen.
Yes, he believes America’s newfound compassion for the disease of addiction is a result of the color of addicts’ skin.
But you know what? Bell says, “So what?”
“As long as they have the programs, it’s all good,” said Bell, a graduate of many drug treatment programs. “Don’t cut the programs. They keep people alive and out of the penitentiary.”
Had President Bush spoken of addiction as an illness — rather than a crime — all those years ago, hundreds of thousands of lives might look different today.
Only now, because those dying in this epidemic look like the children and grandchildren of those in power, are we finally applying some compassion and common sense to addiction.
Too little, too late? Yes.
But is it progress? Yes, at long last.