Such public-health responses were not necessarily unthinkable during the crack-cocaine wave of the 1980s or the heroin epidemic of the 1960s. But the limited public-health measures adopted during those eras were overshadowed by more punitive responses to those crises. Can you imagine the Congress and the White House of 1985 debating a “Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Act” for crack users?
One public official after another, in states both “red” and “blue,” has pressed in recent years to treat increased heroin use as a public-safety problem as opposed to a criminal-justice matter best left to police, prosecutors, and judges. This is good news. But it forms a vivid contrast with the harsh reaction a generation ago to the sudden rise in the use of crack cocaine, and from the harsh reaction two generations ago to an earlier heroin epidemic .
What accounts for the differences? Clearly policymakers know more today than they did then about the societal costs of waging a war on drugs, and dispatching low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to prison for decades. The contemporary criminal-justice system places more emphasis on treatment and reform than it did, say, during the Reagan years or when New York’s draconian “Rockefeller laws” were passed in the 1970s. But there may be another explanation for the less hysterical reaction, one that few policymakers have been willing to acknowledge: race.
Some experts and researchers see in the different responses to these drug epidemics further proof of America’s racial divide. Are policymakers going easier today on heroin users (white and often affluent) than their elected predecessors did a generation ago when confronted with crack addicts who were largely black, disenfranchised, and economically bereft? Can we explain the disparate response to the “black” heroin epidemic of the 1960s, in which its use and violent crime were commingled in the public consciousness, and the white heroin “epidemic” today, in which its use is considered a disease to be treated or cured, without using race as part of our explanation?
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