The U.S. has a long history of criminalizing drug addicts with lengthy prison sentences in lieu of rehabilitation or treatment. The tough on crime rhetoric has always been the go-to strategy for Republican politicians like Ronald Reagan, who famously signed mandatory minimums for drug abusers into law back in 1987. If someone had a drug problem, it was always seen as their fault and their lack of responsibility that led to the addiction.
Of course Reagan’s policies, like most drug laws, disproportionately impacted blacks who were caught either using or selling. But all of a sudden, Republican presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are shifting the dialogue from a punitive standpoint, to a much more empathetic one.
While Jeb recently claimed he can empathize with drug addicts, Christie voiced his support for treating those with addictions instead of jailing them. So what gives? Why has the “tough-guy, pull yourself up by the bootstraps” party suddenly become so understanding toward addicts?
Turns out that the latest drug abuse epidemic of heroin plaguing the country is mostly impacting young white males, so it isn’t too surprising that the Republican party would change its tune. I’d hypothesize that the new-found empathy might be because some of the latest victims in the drug war are people politicians can identify with, which humanizes drug abusers. Or maybe I’m being unfair. I’ll allow the numbers to speak for themselves.
The statistics are unavoidable – according the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of past-year heroin use among non-Hispanic whites increased 114.3% from 1.4 per 1,000 in 2002 to 2004 to 3.0 per 1,000 in 2011 to 2013. The CDC continues to note that from 2002 to 2011, rates of heroin initiation were reported to be highest among white males between the ages of 18 to 25. The addicts usually have an annual household income of less than $20,000, and live in the Northeast, which might be another reason why Christie has made empathetic drug policy front and center in his presidential campaign.
Christie knows that there are families in his own state that have fallen victim to addiction, and he should also know by now that heroin addicts usually get hooked on prescription painkillers and then move to the black market for heroin once they can’t get their hands on Oxycontin anymore.
Would New Jersey’s governor be singing a different tune if the majority of drug addicts were minorities? It’s hard to say with certainty, although he never fought against the vast amounts of people who were criminalized and locked away for something as benign as smoking a joint. In fact, he’s still in favor of marijuana prohibition. If he cared about ALL drug addicts, regardless of race, he would have been a vociferous opponent of what’s been happening in the U.S. for decades.
Around 40,000 people are currently serving time in prison for either selling or possessing marijuana. Also consider the 3,278 non-violent offenders who are currently serving life sentences with no chance of parole. These people are not rapists or murderers. They’re shoplifters and pot smokers, but estimated 65% of them are black, so they’re not even on Republicans’ radar.
If you look specifically at inmates admitted into federal prisons for life sentences without the chance of parole, there were 2,034 imprisoned for drug related crimes from 1999 to 2011 alone. These are people who are still in prison, and who have no chance of ever getting out because they were involved with drugs.
Has Christie been a warrior on their behalf? Not even close. But when drugs begin to cripple white families, all of sudden the Republican party cares about rehabilitation. I’m glad that politicians are beginning to understand how much of a failure the war on drugs has been. But I’m not naive enough to believe they would treat all drug addicts in a similar fashion. There’s a clear double standard when it comes to views on the justice system, and politicians like Christie should be called out on it.