I recently spoke to someone about addiction, to which his immediate response was, “Oh, you don’t want to know what I think about that stuff. I think we should just kill all the drug addicts.” An interesting sentiment that’s not too far from where public opinion has nested for decades — and why might that be?

If I asked you to picture the “typical drug addict,” you would likely conjure a mental image of a racial minority and there’s a reason for that, dating back to the Jim Crow era. David Musto, a noted historian, described the logic behind the first bans on cocaine: “The fear of the cocainized black coincided with the peak of lynchings, legal segregation … designed to remove political and social power from him. Fear of cocaine might have contributed to the dread that the black man would rise above ‘his place …'” (http://www.drugtext.org/The-American- Disease/1-the- american-disease.html).

Similarly, in the 1880s, the movement to ban opium was ignited by first spreading rapid panic about Chinese immigrants. Claims similar to those regarding black men and cocaine were stated — that opium would lead Chinese men to pursue white women, who would be powerless to their drug-induced spell.

That sounds a lot like what Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage had to say about “drug dealers” that “… impregnate a young, white girl before they leave” (https://www.pressherald.com/2016/01/08/lepage-to-hold- news-conference-adressing-comments-about-drug-dealers-white-girls/).

The reason that this should be brought to the forefront of the conversation is to expose the racist undertones of American drug policy that continue today. Mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases call for exceptionally harsh minimum punishments to be handed out to all drug offenders of specific drug crimes.

One example of that is in the old New York Rockefeller Laws (named after the former governor of New York who enacted them). Those laws called for a minimum of 15 years in prison for selling more than two ounces of any illegal drugs (http://www.drugpolicy.org/resource/ background-new-yorks-draconian-rockefeller-drug-laws).

So, how were these laws racist? Originally, the law was passed and instituted for many years for nearly all drugs, including cannabis. However, because the main group being arrested were upper-middle class white people and not racial minorities (which can easily be inferred as the intended target of these laws), the cannabis section of the law was revoked (well before the remaining parts of it). In 2009, the then-governor of New York, David Paterson, labeled these laws one of the most unsuccessful criminal justice strategies of our time and removed the mandatory minimum sentencing (an enormous step in the right direction).

That isn’t the only time that resources were allocated to combating addiction by targeting minority groups while ignoring others that didn’t fit the definition of the “typical addict.” Resources, such as law enforcement officers, are allocated to targeting low-income areas populated more by minorities than white people, and judges are more likely to incur punishment than treatment on racial minorities who are seen as the “typical addict” despite the fact that anyone can develop a drug dependency.

There is no such thing as a “typical addict,” so what do many people who are drug dependent have in common?

Maia Szalavitz, in her new book “Unbroken Brain” encourages all people to view addiction as a learning disorder. That is, when you experience adversity but have no coping mechanisms, you use drugs to cope, thus making you dependent on the drug to escape from the pain you are experiencing.

Observe those who suffer from drug dependence and you will see people of all backgrounds (race, class, religion, etc.). Listen to the stories of those with drug dependence and you might just figure out where this need for an escape comes from. These are human beings, some are poor, some are rich, some far away from you, some are your family/friends/neighbors — addiction does not discriminate.

That is not to say that only those experiencing traumatic events become addicted to drugs, but everyone has a story. The data show that the reason we have been ultimately ineffective at combating drug misuse is because we still struggle to understand who “they” are.

The “typical addict” really is — anyone.

Thomas Elie is a second-year student working to achieve his master of social work degree from the University of Maine at Orono. He lives in Lewiston.


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