The War on Drugs Is Too Harsh For White Users

In a plea that smacks of hypocrisy, Governor Chris Christie is asking us to go easy on a certain kind of person struggling with addiction: affluent White suburbanites.

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Last Wednesday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie released a video making an emotional plea for better treatment of drug users. It may have seemed shocking to see a member of the GOP showing an ounce of compassion, common sense, and critical thought about the disastrous war on drugs, and indeed it earned Christie tons of praise.

Brothers and sisters, don’t let your eyes and ears deceive you. 

The New Jersey governor, like many in the GOP, is expressing compassion for some drug users, demanding leniency for a few, and alternatives for parts of America. Not coincidentally, he is asking for a new approach to deal with drugs at a moment when White suburbanites are becoming the new face of today’s heroin “epidemic.”

In his video, Christie compares drug addiction to his mother’s addition to cigarettes. He speaks movingly about her battle with lung cancer, and how hard she tried to quit smoking.

“We know the lung cancer was caused by the smoking,” Christie said. “But no one came to me and said: ‘Hey, listen, your mother was dumb. She started smoking when she was 16, then after we told her it was bad for her, she kept doing it. We’re not going to give her radiation. We’re not going to give her any of that stuff. You know why? Because she’s getting what she deserves.’ No one said that.”

Despite their similarities, drug users are viewed differently. “We say: ‘Well, they decided. They’re getting what they deserved,’” said Christie.

“I’m pro-life,” Christie declared, as he wound up for another opportunity to tighten his embrace of the #WhiteLivesMatterMore platform and assault a women’s right to choose. “And I think that if you’re pro-life, that means you’ve got to be pro-life for the whole life, not just for the nine months they’re in the womb. It’s easy to be pro-life for the nine months they’re in the womb – they haven’t done anything to disappoint us yet. They’re perfect in there. But when they get out, that’s when it gets tough. The 16-year-old teenage girl on the floor of the county lockup, addicted to heroin, I’m pro-life for her too. Her life is just as much a precious gift from God as the one in the womb.”

If only Christie’s pro-life stance extended to Black and Latinos living in Camden, Newark, and Trenton, where he has slashed aid to local school districts and cut social services to the poor while coddling the wealthiest residents. Never mind his support for the death penalty. Or the fact that his push for drug courts furthers the criminalization process, particularly for communities of color because these courts penalize relapse with incarceration and eject people who are unable to abstain from drug use for a period of time. Not to mention, there are racial disparities in completion rates due to greater unemployment rates and housing instability for Black and Latino users in recovery.

Christie’s critiques of the war on drugs may be longstanding, as he has pushed for treatment for first-time offenders in New Jersey, but like his GOP compatriots, the only thing consistent about him is his hypocrisy and inconsistencies. In a recent interview with conservative talk radio host, Hugh Hewitt, he expressed his opposition to legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington.

“Marijuana is a gateway drug. We have an enormous addiction problem in this country. And we need to send very clear leadership from the White House on down through the federal law enforcement. Marijuana is an illegal drug under federal law. And the states should not be permitted to sell it and profit from it,” he said.

Similarly, he has dragged his feet to implement the 2010 medical marijuana law in New Jersey, although recently claiming that he supports it. He calls for compassion even as he “vows to ‘crack down’ on marijuana as president.”

Despite the hypocrisy and contradictions, he is being lauded by the left and the right: MSNBC host Rachel Maddow touted the video, which the Huffington Post posted to Facebook on October 30. “Whether you like Chris Christie as a politician or not, whether you like him as a candidate or not, his kind of skill at communicating the way you saw him communicate there, on an issue like this, that’s why he still seems like he could be a contender,” Maddow said.

The National Reviews Jonah Goldberg wrote, “Whatever you think of the issues involved, you can see how this would leave a lasting impression, particularly in a state struggling with a major heroin problem. It’s also a good example of why I think he’s got a shot.”

He received a complimentary tweet from Vanity Fair writer Peter Sagal and NPR reporter Scott Simon called the moment “candid, moving,” and “utterly human.” 

Now he wants compassion when the new face of America’s drug problem is a White, affluent suburban heroin user? And be clear, they have always been the face of drug use and drug distribution. Where was Christie’s “humanity” when these decades-old draconian drug war policies were destroying countless Black families, and eroding any economic gains in Black communities? Now those zero-tolerance and three-strikes-you’re-out and sentencing juveniles as adults policies are NOW too extreme and inhumane? GTFOHWTBS!

Having locked up so many people of color, and having ignored illegal drug use and drug dealing within white, affluent, and suburban communities for three decades, the GOP is now looking in the mirror only to see drugs as a White public health “problem,” one that deserves sympathy and kindness.

Days before Christie made his plea to be more empathetic to drug users, the New York Times published a story about how, now that 90 percent of new heroin users over the last decade are White, race and class are driving a different reaction to the opioid epidemic compared with previous drug crises. White parents are using their power and resources to lobby for the decriminalization of drugs even though those laws have rarely been applied to Whites, whose overdoses in “cocaine apartments” are covered in the media, whose drug dealing is neither policed nor punished, and where and how drug courts are available. The Times interviewed a White former undercover narcotics detective who said he is finding new ways to respond to drug users.. His job now is to reach out to people who have overdosed and help them get treatment.

“The way I look at addiction now is completely different,” he said. “I can’t tell you what changed inside of me, but these are people and they have a purpose in life and we can’t as law enforcement look at them any other way. They are committing crimes to feed their addiction, plain and simple. They need help.”

Marc Mauer, executive director of the criminal justice reform group the Sentencing Project, points to the power of White privilege because of how anti-Black racism and the Jim Crow nature of the war on drugs has concealed who indeed is getting high and selling drugs.

“Both the image and reality is that this is a White and often middle-class problem,” Mauer said. 

Yet, ironically and further revealing the entrenched racism of the war on drugs and the systemic privileges of whiteness, Mauer celebrates how whiteness is fostering a conversation.

“We’re having a much broader conversation about prevention and treatment, and trying to be constructive in responding to this problem. This is good. I don’t think we should lock up White kids to show we’re being equal,” he said.

Indeed, but if compassion is necessary now, what about for those locked up in America’s prison cells?  Where is the demand for second chances and sympathy for those on probation, who have to check “the box,” who can find themselves locked up for testing positive for alcohol or drugs?  Is Christie and others going to fight for some retroactive compassion because there are millions of people, mostly black and Latino, who could use reparations for decades of tough-on-crime a.k.a. “tough on people of color” policies.

Data tells us that rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines. However, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated for drug law violations than are Whites. Arrest and incarceration rates for African Americans and Latinos are not higher because drug use or sales in these communities are higher, but rather because law enforcement focuses on urban areas, lower-income communities, and on communities of color as well as inequitable treatment by the biased criminal justice system which has led to the mass criminalization of people of color, particularly young Black men who have been suffering life-long penalties and exclusions that follow a drug conviction have created a permanent second-class status for millions of them. They can’t vote, get licensed, access public assistance, find employment, live in public housing, etc. The drug war has succeeded not in curbing drug use, abuse or sales, but in its REAL goal of supporting the lucrative criminal justice system and maintaining society’s racist dynamics. 

The hypocrisy of these White parents, law-enforcement officers, drug-policy experts, and elected officials is breathtaking. They’re trying to frame this as a desire to help states save money after decades of expensive tough-on-crime policies. Don’t believe the hype! THIS is what White supremacy looks like, and it requires that White drug userss be decriminalized and viewed as flawed humans who simply need help, rather than as inherently bad, criminal, dangerous deviants who need to be locked up and held down in order for society to function.

Now that we are focused on the White girl or guy in the suburbs doing heroin, Percocet, oxycontin, and meth, it’s suddenly a national tragedy and health crisis, versus a societal scourge and crime issue like the crack epidemic that launched the war on drugs. Now that folks are paying attention to Becky and Conner shooting up, everybody wants to talk about prevention and treatment, and suddenly drug addiction is a disease instead of a crime, and the response must be understanding and empathy, not locking up and disenfranchising.

Wouldn’t it have been something if these folks who are now coming out to change the harsh penalizing policies of zero tolerance (at least in their Zip codes), had taken the same sympathetic, understanding, and pro-human approach when it was all about Black people abusing drugs? Black and Latino communities have been devastated by the harsh drug laws and policies designed to send them directly to jail, do not pass Go.

When people of color are using illicit drugs, it’s a character flaw, a lack of integrity, and maybe even an inherent criminality that simply requires the right substance and circumstance to become addiction. Where was the call for leniency then? 

Even now, the racial scripts are clear in that the “criminals”—the drug dealers—are poisoning otherwise law-abiding White communities. For example, the emergent narrative around New Hampshire has been that heroin is coming from New York. In other words, those thugs and criminals from New York (read Black youth) are bringing drugs to those quiet suburban residential communities. Reframing the war on drugs—more police and harsher sentences—as one to protect White innocence from Black criminality is on full display here. Drug treatment and more police are about protecting White humanity.

Whether using or selling, there was no recognition of the humanity of people of color; no concern for their well-being. Instead, families and communities of color have been destroyed to feed the prison pipeline. Folks haven’t been addressing the issue of addiction and dependency until they migrated to the suburbs. 

I wish the GOP would just be honest and own the fact that they only care about White people from politically important states going to prisons. And I wish the media would stop acting like White folks are actually going to prison en masse for drugs. That shit ain’t never happened and it ain’t never gonna happen. The real truth is that the laws need to be changed because they’ve already locked up so much of the Black and Latino population—you know, all those “disposable populations.”

Listen, don’t be naïve. This is racial bigotry unmasked. White drug users will get the help they need, but that same courtesy of sympathy and a more gentle touch will not be extended to users of color. The war on Black lives will continue because racial control of Black bodies and lives, contrasted with help, exoneration and redemption for Whites, is what White supremacy requires. And let’s be clear: The real drug here is White supremacy and America’s addiction is growing.

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