The Opioid Crisis– A New War on Drugs
Once trends have been contextualized to the political and social influences that caused them, one can come to a conclusion upon whether or not proposed solutions to the opioid crisis are viable and determine what steps should be taken should they prove not to be.
By dismantling the narratives surrounding the crack epidemic and opioid epidemic and comparing the policies put forward to solve them, one ought to recognize that the opioid crisis has been whitewashed in an effort to revive and ameliorate the War on Drugs.
By making rural and suburban white communities the face of the opioid epidemic, media and lawmakers have successfully centered the discussion of harmful opiates around prescription pain relievers. This results in the exclusion of synthetic opiates (heroine, fetanyl, etc.) from public health solutions to the opioid crisis. To regard this as insignificant is dangerous, as these synthetic opiates are primarily responsible for the opioid overdoses found in urban black communities— while prescription opiates are primarily responsible for opioid overdoses in rural and suburban white communities.
It appears as if the same white gaze that created the imagine of black and brown Americans as the perpetrators of the crack epidemic, is now refusing to acknowledge them as victims to the opioid crisis. Instead, public health policy will favor rural and suburban white communities and the increased criminalization of drug use will lead to an increase in the mass incarceration of black and brown communities.
Through this marginalization of black and brown people from the mainstream media’s perception of victims of the opioid crisis, the white gaze has effectively removed these communities from the solutions to the opioid crisis. In fact, one can already see this happening in a massive Ohio lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies. It involves plaintiffs from over 200 cities, but these are mostly white communities in rural areas being represented by rural, white lawyers. Should they reach a settlement, and it is likely they will, those same lawyers will determine how the damages are distributed– and who they are distributed to. (Sharpton 5)
Searching for a Solution
So, how do we find solutions to the opioid crisis that are inclusive and do not introduce a reiteration and advancement of the War on Drugs to American politics?
Let us begin with the acknowledgement of the white gaze’s influence on past legislation and the centering of any reform movements on the most marginalized groups within the opioid epidemic. This means shifting the focus of our solutions from supporting the privileged few to supporting those who are the most vulnerable.
An illustration of the dangerous effects of centering reform around privileged groups can be found the tobacco industry lawsuits of the 90’s, where settlements were distributed unequally to victims of the tobacco industry. (Sharpton 7) As in many other cases, the privilege of legal representation determined whether one was justly compensated, not the measure of one’s suffering at the hands of the tobacco industry.
Considering that decades of research has proven that the tobacco industry systematically targets impoverished minority communities, notoriously African-American communities in particular, one is pushed to inquire the following: who will have the privileged access to adequate legal representation against the billionaire tobacco industry? (Lee 6)
Surely, the communities who suffered the most at the hands of the tobacco industry will face more unavoidable obstacles in relation to their socioeconomic status than those communities who suffered much less.
Equally important in reaching a resolution to the opioid crisis is the radical change in societal attitudes to drug abuse epidemics, as the vilification of those addicted to drugs empowers the state to approach drug use as a public threat, rather than a public health concern. This is crucial—for the branding of the victims of drug epidemics as thugs, fiends, or “super-predators” allows the state to justify harsh legislation that violently marginalizes these groups in the name of “public safety”. As revealed by the War on Drugs and opioid crisis, complacency regarding this change in societal attitudes will only result in further oppressive measures against groups who have been marginalized for centuries.
It is true that the white gaze has imbued American culture since its inception during the slave trade, but to say this would portend no progress for future generations is to reinforce notions of powerlessness that have oppressed revolutionary movements throughout history.
Although I have not developed a solution to America’s opioid crisis that would revert all the decades of violence and suffering produced by the War on Drugs, I believe the first step to finding an answer is unboxing the sociopolitical and economic complexities of the white gaze and understanding its use as a tool of censorship and control. This knowledge will determine the most optimal course of action to disrupt the institution of the white gaze, empowering communities oppressed by its effects to lead the conversation on how their story comes to a close.
Until we revise Nixon’s infamous assertion that, “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse,” to denounce the white gaze and all institutionalized forms of oppression instead, we will continue to see the lamentable trend of drug epidemics disparaging American communities and ideals.