Race, Class, Drugs and Courts: From Black Crack to White Smack

Ampoules of freeze-dried diamorphine (heroin) for medical use

It seems that the War on Drugs really is shifting with the Obama White House and members of the United States Congress as well. This was not a response, however, by the Obama administration to alleviate problems with disproportionate sentencing for minorities, though it plays its own major role, but rather a response to the skyrocketing rate of heroin abuse, addiction and overdose cases facing the white community.
Photo by Pete Chapman: Ampoules of freeze-dried diamorphine (heroin) for medical use via Wikimedia Commons Images.

As the Seattle Times reported, more people in the white middle and upper middle class are being affected by the sweeping effects of heroin use. Advocates all around who have been in support of softening the harsh approach to drug offenses are still mostly positive about the outcome, which will start to reverse some of the damage done in the minority communities that have suffered the harshest sentences from the Drug War in America. Though, as the Seattle Times report concludes, they are also a bit frustrated that the changes in attitude only come now that more white and upper income level communities are being affected. The article stated that 90 percent of heroin users that tried it for the first time in the past decade were white, though heroin use has been climbing among all ethnic groups.

The Justice Department is also now releasing some 6,000 inmates in an effort to depopulate the prison system of those locked up for mostly petty drug offenses. This is also an attempt to save money.

The cause of the rise in heroin addiction can be linked to an earlier wave of pharmaceutical prescription drug abuse, as the Seattle Times pointed out. This has also been well documented by the film documentary series from National Geographic, Drugs Inc. Much of the heroin imported comes from Mexico and various parts of Asia. In Russia, a crude form of a similar opiate to Heroin called "Crocodile" is ravaging communities as it kills users faster and damages their flesh from the inside out. VICE News has also explored this issue in depth in their documentary about Crocodile. There have been reports of the drug being found in the United States too. In Russia, Heroin is expensive and many are poor. In the U.S., heroin is the next step up from painkillers and other legal prescription pills that users get hooked on. Both are expensive habits.

The Drug War Times has previously detailed the legal history of cannabis in the United States and found race, class and ethnicity to be a major motivating factor in criminalizing marijuana in the early 1900s through various acts passed in the government legislation. As Vox points out, during the period that the federal government began passing laws like the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 and the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, there were high racial tensions and prejudice in the United States. African Americans, Chinese and Chinese Americans and Mexicans and Mexican Americans were the target of much of the prejudice, racism and discrimination that came to be the real reason for drug prohibition in regard to marijuana. Minorities were scapegoated as being drug users and pushers of the evil marijuana drug, which was previously sold as cannabis over the counter for a variety of ailments to European settlers and other earlier white Americans.

Class has always played a role too, particularly in the capitalist country, USA. When Nixon declared drugs as public enemy number one, he was mostly referring to the wave of drugs coming in from Vietnam, which was mostly heroin. Hippies did use drugs in the 1960s like LSD (acid), PCP (angel dust), magic mushrooms, cocaine and speed, but heroin became a major problem during the war campaign back home in the states. Many of the people who went to war were on the lower ends of society's economic totem pole and heroin use and distribution was exploding in black communities like Harlem with help from people like the Italian mafia and dirty cops. Then the CIA, through use of South American armed rebels who sold drugs for weapons to overthrow their government in Colombia, helped introduce "Freeway" Ricky Ross (the real one, not the fake one who raps about it and hijacked his identity for fame and money without actually doing those things himself) to cocaine dealing. Ross basically invented crack to sell to poor people. This is when the harsh penalties for minorities really started kicking into high gear.

Eventually the Mexican Cartels took over from the Colombians in the drug trade and expanded greatly into methamphetamine and heroin smuggling enterprises that were cash cows in the middle class and white neighborhoods of America, as well as the impoverished and more diverse neighborhoods. The cartels use gangs from the USA to help with the workload.

Treatment for drug addition, rather than simply locking people up, is actually becoming a reality. But the long-lasting effects of policy may be hard to reverse quickly. It will likely take decades to undo much of the harm and mistrust that has already been sewn. For minority communities, police brutality also has played a major role and recent protests, riots and social upheaval have put the spotlight on these very issues in recent years as mobile video has proliferated.