Opioids and White Privilege – Lock’em Up vs. Treatment

Opioids and White Privilege

The arrival of opioids as a national concern might focus your attention on the role of drug companies, doctors, and hospitals in creating this new addiction path. In the October 30 New Yorker Patrick Radden Keefe provides a through introduction to this in his piece, “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain: The Sackler dynasty’s ruthless marketing of painkillers has generated billions of dollars—and millions of addicts“.

But taking another view and thinking back over the last 45 years of the War on Drugs it is striking that this new addiction crisis differs from the earlier ones because of the involvement of a substantial white population. For example, In New Hampshire, one of the least diverse states in the country, the state’s main newspaper the Union Leader reported:

More than 13 million doses of Schedule II painkillers — the kind implicated in the opioid epidemic plaguing the state — were dispensed at New Hampshire pharmacies in just one three-month period this year.
The first data to come from the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program reveals that 108,398 patients filled 16,285,259 prescriptions for Schedule II medications in April, May and June.

And 80 percent of those prescriptions were for pain relievers, such as fentanyl, morphine and oxycodone.1

This is a state with a population of 1.33 million people.

Lock Up Black and Brown People; Treatment for Whites

President Nixon initiated his War on Drugs explicitly targeting black and brown people as part of his dog whistle racial politics. In the ensuing years one administration after another has continued and strengthened the focus on locking up drug users. This lock’em up strategy has filled our jails and contributed to giving the US the number one position in the world in the race to incarcerate. Now that opioid addiction has appeared broadly in the white population, suddenly, treatment for addiction is the preferred public policy. Even Trump has gotten in on the opioid crisis, though without any funding. One cannot help but think that white privilege is in play here.


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  1. http://www.unionleader.com/Opioid-user-numbers-in-NH-are-staggering

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