Editorial: Why did we treat the heroin problem differently than the crack problem?

(Additional reporting and video by Libby Duebber, Libby Cunningham and Evan Millward)

“We need to start paying attention to our neighbors.”

If we heeded that simple quote from O'dell Owens, it might help solve a lot of problems.

Owens, a doctor, public health official and one-time university president, was talking, in the video below, about how we treat people with drug problems, specifically about the current heroin epidemic, as viewed through the lens of the crack epidemic of 30 years ago.

Owens is African American, and like other African Americans, has questions about the heroin crisis and the response to it.

For complex reasons, addiction comes with racial fault lines. Heroin addiction has almost exclusively afflicted whites. The crack epidemic was viewed as predominantly a black problem.

And the current response to the heroin problem has opened old wounds.

In the mid-80s, crack cocaine addiction damaged lives, families and communities.

Society’s response was to fight, to wage a pitched battle in the war on drugs.  Congress passed a law requiring mandatory prison sentences for crack, the drug of choice at the time for hundreds of thousands of urban blacks. 

Fast forward to today and a new drug epidemic.

Heroin and pain pills have been killing people and wasting white lives for more than a decade. The response has been far from perfect. But it has been more measured. Treatment, not jail time, is considered the best approach. Rather than pass a bill to stiffen jail terms, Congress just passed one to improve drug treatment.

The different responses have many African Americans wondering if the different responses were based on race – treatment for the white problem, jail for the black problem.

And it created a question for us. At the beginning of this year, WCPO committed to a long-term project to advocate for solutions to the heroin crisis. To help us, we created an advisory group of doctors, treatment professionals, police and parents. But among our editorial board, questions persisted about the perception of racial disparity. We talked about it and decided to explore it, a topic that is on the minds of many but which has been rarely approached during this epidemic.

We talked to African American leaders, thinkers and regular folks. What they had to say was remarkably similar. 

The comments reveal resentment and pain from how black communities were treated. But they also reveal hope that we can do better.

Is race the reason for the different responses to these two epidemics? Maybe. It’s hard to say for sure without getting into the hearts and minds of the architects of our community’s responses. 

One thing is sure: the responses are different. We need to acknowledge that and also acknowledge the resentment and the damage that still lingers from the crack wars.

We still have a long way to go to find the right approaches to addiction. The heroin epidemic is raging worse than ever. How we handle it will help us with the next addiction, which will surely come.

Maybe we changed the way we approach addiction because we learned some things about addiction in the last 30 years. Or maybe race is the reason these two addictions are being treated differently. We don’t have a definitive answer.

But we agreed on one important aspect: all addiction, no matter who it affects, should be treated humanely.

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