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No Gentler War on Drugs

DONNA MURCH is right that the rhetoric on drugs has softened along racial lines. The dominant narrative now mostly describes working-class white victims in rural states, despite recent data showing that drug death rates are rising sharply for African Americans. Prior drug “crises”, such as those involving crack and heroin, were seen as inner-city issues that exclusively affected people of color, who were rarely extended the moral purity of victimhood. This racial transformation has led lawmakers, law enforcement, and mainstream media alike to display more compassion toward people who use drugs, as exemplified by the 2015 New York Times headline “White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs.” Yet public policies have not matched the rhetoric. Although in some cases we have moved toward a more health-centered approach to the overdose crisis, the rhetoric of compassion belies an ongoing and insidious entanglement with capitalism.

It is true that the government’s response to the opioid epidemic has differed markedly from earlier drug panics. Traditional upticks in drug use—whether crack in the 1980s or methamphetamine in the 1990s—were met (under the Reagan, Clinton, and both Bush administrations) with an enforcement-centered response: tougher sentences, narcotic task forces, more prisons and law enforcement funding. The overdose crisis, by contrast, has led lawmakers to call for compassion and treatment. Under Obama, Congress passed legislation aimed at tackling the overdose crisis with a public health focus. Both the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and the 21st Century Cures Act, passed in 2016, poured billions of dollars into treatment. But beneath this compassionate approach, many of the quintessential characteristics of the drug war persist—fueled by money and power, not evidence.

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