Race and the Opioid Epidemic

America’s opioid crisis is a public health emergency of historic scope. Disproportionately affecting rural and white Americans, billions of dollars have been spent, and thousands of lives lost, as we try to identify causes and implement solutions to this growing crisis. While documentaries such as Netflix’s Heroin(e) have helped put faces to these tragedies, a growing number of Floridians are able to see the painful impacts of this scourge without dramatization. By now, most of us know or know of someone who lost their life to this epidemic.

Fortunately, as with most problems both past and present, there are solutions. In the case of our uniquely American opioid epidemic, we have the opportunity not to only find the cure for opioid addiction, but to fix our systemically racist criminal justice system. To do this, we need to recognize that America treats the black drug epidemic as a war and the white drug epidemic as a treatable disease.

For generations, America has been engaged in two very different conflicts against drugs and addiction. One conflict is white; the other black. Thanks to pharmaceutical companies, for more than 150 years, millions of white Americans have been hooked on legal drugs. Opioids have a long-established history as a white drug, straddling the fine line between legitimate medications and drugs of addiction. Morphine was a widespread pain reliever during the Civil War. Later, the white middle class was prescribed morphine for everything from general pain to menstrual cramps! By the end of the 19th century, white America was in the grips of a morphine epidemic. In 1898, the Bayer Corporation came to the rescue by mass-producing a new “non-addictive” alternative to morphine. They called it heroin. Even before the turn of the last century, corporations have pushed opioids on unsuspecting, predominately white, consumers.

Today, the opioid epidemic is killing white Americans at a disproportionately high rate and the rates of opioid deaths in Florida are among the highest in the nation. Pharmaceutical companies continue to profit from whites getting addicted on their legal product, while blacks are targeted and incarcerated once the product becomes junk on the streets. This progression from cure to cancer protects their legal business model and their ability to sell new cures for their poisons.

America’s second drug conflict, our “war against drugs,” began in the 1970s as an effort by the Republican Party to disrupt civil disobedience. In his 1994 interview with Harper’s, Richard Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman famously revealed the motivation behind the Nixon Administration’s drug war: To target African-Americans and the anti-war left. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities … . Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Many white Americans, particularly Republicans, do not want to admit that the mass incarceration of African Americans began as a Nixonian lie. They don’t want to admit that the planned disruption of black America was the result of a statist president’s sadistic whim. Two decades later, Democratic President Bill Clinton escalated the war into a bipartisan one by championing federal three-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation, minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines, and other policies that devastated African-American communities.

The impacts of this race war haunt Florida to this day. According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune’s series, “One War. Two Races,” black Floridians represent 17 percent of Florida’s population, but have accounted for 46 percent of the state’s felony drug convictions since 2004. Further, “[t]hose with darker skin spend two-thirds more time behind bars for drug crimes.” In addition, “[b]lacks are nearly three times more likely to face a drug-free zone enhancement and account for two-thirds of these convictions statewide … .” “Once caught in drug-free zones,” SHT reports, “black Floridians spend nearly double the time in lockup as whites … .”

Florida’s recent appropriation of $53.5 million in state and federal funds for prevention and treatment programs, as well as updates to the state’s prescription database, is a solid investment. Our elected officials must commit to a public health approach and understand we cannot criminalize our way out of this epidemic. We cannot give in to using discretionary arrests, minimum mandatory sentencing, permanent loss of voting rights and the other racist policies from the last 40 years. We must hold bad actors in the pharmaceutical industry responsible for the roles they have played in keeping white America addicted to their products. We must finally end the racist drug war against our black communities and begin to treat ALL Americans suffering from addiction with compassion and equality under the law.


Cronrath is a political science professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville.