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Maia Szalavitz Maia Szalavitz

These “New Face of Heroin” Stories Are Just the Old Face of Racism


Revelations that white, middle-class people are—now! suddenly! for the first time!—using heroin stem from the pernicious lie that "typical" users are black.

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Rolling Stone The New Face Of Heroin David M. Brinley Illustration

Rolling Stone serves up the media’s dish of the day. Photo via

OMG! Heroin is now hitting the middle class. According to NBC News, the “New Face of Heroin Is Young, White and Suburban.” ABC News found “Heroin in Suburbia.” The Daily News headlined its story, on a new study of the demographics, “Heroin’s New Users Are Now the Suburban Kid Next Door.” Fox weighed in with “Face of Heroin Now Young, White and Suburban.” Search Google News for “new + face + heroin,” and you get 35,800 results in the past month alone.

This white, middle-class former heroin addict of the 1980s is outraged—outraged, I tell you. But what I’m furious about is not the supposed new class of heroin users. It’s that the media still assumes that the face of American addiction is poor and black—and that heroin ever went away.

While there certainly has been an increase in overdose deaths and opioid addiction in recent years, the white American middle class has been involved with this class of narcotics for more than a century.

According to the major government survey on the issue, “Monitoring the Future,” the percentage of the population that takes heroin doesn’t vary all that much over time. For example, between 1975 and 2012, the proportion of high school seniors who took heroin in the past month has never measured more than 0.1%; the proportion who take it daily has never even been high enough to measure accurately. Prevalence of past month heroin use by adults aged 19 to 28—the group most likely to take any drug—is 0.2%.

Consequently, until we stop viewing addiction through a scrim of racism, we won’t be able to recognize the real issues and treat addicted people—whatever their race and class—effectively.

To illustrate, try and guess the date of these New York Times headlines:

*“Heroin’s New Generation: Young, White and Middle Class

*“For Heroin’s New Users, A Long Hard Fall

*“Heroin Addiction: Problem for Middle Class Also

*“Addiction Among Middle Class and Wealthy Found on the Rise

*“The Scourge of Youth: Use of Heroin by Students Is Called Deadliest Fad Ever to Hit Campuses

Granted, the last one has dated language, so it’s clearly not current. That one included, the linked stories are from 2003, 1999, 1982, 1969 and 1970, respectively. And every single one—going back nearly 50 years—implies or states explicitly that Times readers share the paper’s assumption that heroin addiction is a problem of the inner-city poor.

This is despite hundreds of pop culture artifacts that document heroin use as a white middle- and upper-class experience, including such classics as William S. Burrough’s novel Junkie (1953), Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” (1955), Lou Reed’s song “Heroin” (1967), Gus Van Sant’s film Drugstore Cowboy (1989, based on a memoir about a 1971 gang of white opioid addicts who rob pharmacies), and, in the 1990s, Kurt Cobain’s heroin addiction and the “heroin chic” fashion.

In fact, the study that prompted this most recent outbreak of media coverage doesn’t even show quite what the “New Face of Heroin” headlines suggest. Published in JAMA Psychiatry, it included nearly 3,000 people who had been treated for heroin problems, with addictions started in decades ranging from the 1960s to the 2010s.

From the earliest time studied, however, around half of the heroin-addicted folks were white. As far back as the 1970s, the heroin-addicted population had a white majority—and in every decade since then, white heroin addicts have outnumbered blacks. Although, because blacks are a minority in the population, they are somewhat over-represented in most of the late 20th century.

Nonetheless, from the 1980s onward, the typical heroin addict was not black. And in the most recent group, blacks are actually under-represented. African Americans make up around 12% of the population—but in the 2010s, 90% of heroin addicts are white.

So why is today’s media hyperventilating about heroin breaking free from the ghetto, when that had already happened back in Ronald Reagan’s era? And when is the media going to stop rewriting the same story Newsweek first ran in 1981 about the new “Middle-Class Junkies”?

This will only happen if we examine why we’re so keen to see white middle-class addicts as “not typical.” The reason is both simple and sad. Our drug laws are not designed to fight addiction or drug-related harm: They are driven by racism. America’s first cocaine laws were passed in Southern states concerned that “Negro Cocaine Fiends” would rape white women; our first opium laws come from California, where the worry was that Chinese railroad workers would use it to seduce or rape white women.

National marijuana prohibition? That derives from arguments by the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, who said in 1937, “This marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and others.” Even Prohibition (1920 to 1933) involved racism—its proponents actually had to distance themselves from the violence of their supporters in the Ku Klux Klan. Most of the arguments in favor of outlawing alcohol, however, were based on alcohol’s supposed links to German and Irish immigrants.

But as a result of this history, both our concepts of addiction and our laws aimed at dealing with it originated at the height of the Jim Crow era, and our stereotypes of addicted people are nearly identical to the most vile racist portrayals of black people. Addicted people are supposed to be lazy, shiftless, dishonest, promiscuous, criminal and violent—therefore, such people can’t “typically” be white and middle class.

Our stereotypes of addicted people are nearly identical to the most vile racist portrayals of black people: lazy, shiftless, dishonest, promiscuous, criminal and violent. Therefore, such people can’t “typically” be white and middle class.

This creates media tropes about “epidemics” of addiction “spreading” from the ghetto (where, it is implied, it belongs) to white middle-class teenagers—and completely distorts the nature of the problem.

It suggests that law enforcement can confine it, that drugs alone cause the problem and that limiting supply is effective or can be achieved without, say, shifting opiate-addicted people from one illegal substance to another.

It suggests that criminal behavior is inevitably part of addiction, when, for the most part, this link rests on which drugs are stigmatized and therefore prohibited and expensive. And that classification is determined not by scientific evaluation of which drugs are most harmful, but by the racial fears that drive prohibition laws. Cigarettes, for example, are the most harmful drug known to humanity—causing the death of 50% of users—and they are perfectly legal.

In reality, addiction starts long before addicted people are ever exposed to a drug—and at least 85% of those who try heroin and other opioids do not become addicted. Addiction rates are higher in poor people—not because they are less moral or have greater access to drugs, but because they are more likely to experience childhood trauma, chronic stress, high school dropout, mental illness and unemployment, all of which raise the odds of getting and staying hooked.

Addiction spreads, essentially, when people are traumatized and when they lack meaningful work and/or social support. As growing economic inequality shrinks the middle class and creates ever greater stress on more and more people, it’s not surprising that we would see an increase in addiction rates. Supply isn’t entirely irrelevant because it can determine which drugs are most popular—and if it is a dangerous class of drugs like opioids, this can increase harm.

But if we keep repeating the idea that addiction is a contagion emanating from an immoral underclass that we don’t like, we’ll never understand it. Coverage of “heroin epidemics” and addicts who aren’t “typical” doesn’t lead to good drug policy—it reinforces stereotypes. As we have seen over the past 50 years, that, in turn, leads to harsh laws that lock up people who look like what the media suggests is “typical”—rather than to money for treatment for those who actually need it.

There are no “typical” addicted people—and the sooner we recognize this, the sooner we’ll be able to give them real help.

Maia Szalavitz is one of the nation’s leading neuroscience and addiction journalists, and a columnist at Substance.com. She has contributed to TimeThe New York TimesScientific American MindThe Washington Post and many other publications. She has also published three books, including Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006), and is currently finishing her fourth, Unbroken Brain, which examines why seeing addiction as a developmental or learning disorder can help us better understand, prevent and treat it. Her last column for Substance.com was about the OD of a Minnesota high school student and the prosecution for murder of her teen suppliers.


3 Comments

3 comments on “These “New Face of Heroin” Stories Are Just the Old Face of Racism

    stef

    “This creates media tropes about “epidemics” of addiction “spreading” from the ghetto (where, it is implied, it belongs) to white middle-class teenagers—and completely distorts the nature of the problem.”

    The media does prove reckless with information. However, researchers were never positing that addiction nefariously seeped from the social undesirables (black folk, poor white folk) to the social desirables (middle class white folk). Rather, most of the research – where you can even find it – suggests that where once there was not a heroin issue among young, suburban users, there now is.

    You are correct, though, that the more telling and troubling issue is that now that desirables are opting to try heroin and perhaps find themselves dependent on the substance, the old solutions born of the criminal justice system are not OK. They were OK for the undesirables, but not for people that actually matter.

    We should be very upset about that fact, but that does not erase the fact that heroin use is an issue in geographic areas where it once was not. These are not mutually exclusive realities. I was raised in an area that 15 years ago did not have young community members using heroin and now does. So we’re not describing a unicorn here, we’re describing a horse (no pun intended!).

    Race unequivocally plays a role in our drug policies. There is no unintentional error in portraying black folks using drugs as lazy, shiftless and criminal and middle class white folks using drugs as misguided or confused. And among the parents of young, affluent youth, they may still desire to ascribe the racial overtones to why their good little kid used drugs because “dammit, I need a reason that feels right.” However, these messages by and large are not coming from the youth themselves, most of whom readily admit that they started using heroin because they wanted to (even if they were later regretful of their lack of information on dependence and withdrawal).

    Eric Belsterling

    Maia,
    thank you for your web-site. I have been studying addiction for 20 plus years now and I think/feel (pre-frontal cortex, heart mind, gut mind) that much of the hype in regard to call addiction a disease has to do with our societal/collective conscience in regard to how we define the word “disease”. The AMA defines disease as a defect in an organ which causes pathological symptoms. Addiction, as you know, is defect in the reward pleasure pathway, mainly the Ventral Tegmental and the Nucleus Accumbens. I also believe that the the root cause of dis-ease is through a mal-adaptive/ pathological thought pattern which is either learned on a conscious or unconscious level; these pathological thought patterns are learned and are many times taught unconsciously by a pathological society. I appreciate you calling addiction a developmental/learning disorder as it has led me to my new conclusion of the etiology of this pathological phenominon we have coined “addiction”. Being how I”m learning slowly to see the world through an “and/both” perspective, why not use both theoretical perspectives, for are they not more similar than mutually exclusive? Is not disease also a developmental/learning disorder also? Again, thank you for your passion on this subject. I’m envisioning a society free of addiction where we are all thriving, living sustainably where compassion, health on all levels and forgiveness are the highest of priorities. Blessing and nameste,
    Eric Belsterling, LPC, LCAS, C-SAT Candidate
    Recovery and Wellness Professional Services
    su-drs.com

  1. Stanton Peele
    Stanton Peele

    The problem with this piece, Maia, is that you fundamentally contradict your basic point, the one that says middle-class heroin addiction is rampant and has always been with us. Then, after many paragraphs like this, you say:
    “Addiction rates are higher in poor people—not because they are less moral or have greater access to drugs, but because they are more likely to experience childhood trauma, chronic stress, high school dropout, mental illness and unemployment, all of which raise the odds of getting and staying hooked.

    Addiction spreads, essentially, when people are traumatized and when they lack meaningful work and/or social support. As growing economic inequality shrinks the middle class and creates ever greater stress on more and more people, it’s not surprising that we would see an increase in addiction rates. Supply isn’t entirely irrelevant because it can determine which drugs are most popular—and if it is a dangerous class of drugs like opioids, this can increase harm.” [end quote]

    So you create a straw man — that we say heroin addiction is prevalent in lower SES groups and minorities because we’re bigoted, then note that it happens to be true that these groups do have higher rates of addiction and are less likely to escape it — significantly less likely. In ignoring this reality, you reverse the point you helped Carl Hart make in “High Price.”

    Very best,
    Stanton

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