President George H. W. Bush dedicated his first ever address from the oval office to announcing his $45 billion dollar re-commitment to the war on drugs. On center stage was crack, as well as physically in his hands as a rather theatrical prop. President Bush’s prop can be traced back to an 18 year old high school senior named Keith Jackson during a DEA sting operation at Lafayette Park- a tourist and Secret Service-ridden area steps away from the White House- just a few days before this highly anticipated speech about drugs. But who sells drugs in front of the White House? What are the chances of DEA agents making this arrest right before this highly anticipated speech in a park where the U.S. Park Police reported there had never been a crack arrest before? To even the uninformed, the details of this scenario raised suspicions.
Sure enough, a few weeks after President Bush’s speech, a discovery piece with evidence- still available to view online today- was published on the front page of the Washington Post. This front page story exposes that the sting involving Keith Jackson was in fact a setup, a setup that would go on to ruin the poor boy’s life. Even though this became a scandal for the Bush administration- with a mocking Saturday Night Live sketch made about the situation and all- to this day, there has been no formal apology and no honest clarification about the origins of the chain of commands that led to this special drug buy set up for the speech.
This tragic tale perfectly encapsulates public opinion held about drugs- particularly crack- at this time, which was that the U.S. must “arrest it’s way out” of the problem. The public’s and policy makers’ response to the crack epidemic was to treat users as criminals- and that they did. As a result, this arrest-happy approach to the war on drugs exponentially compounded on top of the U.S.’ already increasing mass incarceration problem.
So, if we look at the response to the opioid epidemic we will see something similar, right? … Well, not exactly. Compared to the response to the crack epidemic, the response to the opioid epidemic almost couldn’t be more different. Families, communities, law enforcement, and political leaders alike have joined forces in recent years to save those in the throws of opioids. Community-wide participation in preventative programs, addict resources, and harm-reduction PSAs can be found with ease in response to the opioid epidemic because it is regarded as a public health crisis- as it should be, and as the crack epidemic should have been as well.
One of the many and perhaps one of the most obvious reasons why these public health crises were treated so differently is that crack addiction disproportionately impacted black and latino communities, and there was a good deal of violence associated with the crack epidemic. However, it is important to note that this excess of violence was not committed by those addicted to crack, but rather by the warring groups and crews selling crack, feuding over territory to push their product. Comparatively, for many, the opioid epidemic began in the safest place we can think of: a doctor's office. In the blink of an eye, pharmaceutical companies have doctors across the country wrapped around their finger thanks to their overtly aggressive- and unfortunately successful- marketing push of opioids like Oxycontin. Additionally, opioid addiction disproportionately impacts those of the caucasian race even bleeding into the most rural of communities, a sign that many experts recognize as a red flag of severity. Race impacts the government’s responses to these public health crises because in this case- and in all cases if we want to be honest with ourselves- policy makers have an easier time identifying and empathizing with individuals they have more in common with. Seeing as the vast majority of our federally elected representatives have been white since this country’s inception, the fact that they would be more sympathetic or understanding of the struggles of white people living in rural America, comes as no surprise.
Additionally, the fact that the recent opioid “boom” can be traced back to the over-prescription of legally protected substances (like oxycodone, oxycontin, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine) certainly adds a layer of complexity. The illegal nature of crack immediately criminalizes anyone who comes into contact with it, adding insult to injury for those burdened with addiction. The illegality of the drug created the space for underground markets to emerge, and where there are underground, unregulated markets, there will be violence and senseless harm. So even though the violence associated with crack is less the fault of the communities impacted most by the epidemic, and much more so the fault of the federal prohibition of drugs itself, it has still been much easier for the average person to be sympathetic to the plight of those impacted by opioids versus crack.
This reality makes it even more curious that we have not done more to punish those responsible at “big pharma” companies and amend our healthcare system to better meet the needs of all battling addiction. The progress of lawsuits that place some responsibility for the opioid epidemic in the laps of companies, like the undeniably guilty Perdue Pharma, indicates some steps in the right direction but these steps are not nearly enough. Perhaps the majority of law makers' sympathy lies with those impacted by the opioid epidemic versus the crack epidemic because many of our elected representatives accept millions and millions of dollars a year in campaign donations from big pharma companies (information readily available across the internet.) They accept this money with an unspoken promise of championing legislation that protects big pharma’s ability to continue to prioritize profit over people. Perhaps this one-sided sympathy and these legislative priorities are further supported by the additional millions some elected officials accept in contributions from those in the private prison sector. Those in this sector will pay out the nose to protect their biggest cash cow- the incarceration of any and all victims of the war on drugs. Perhaps there's more outright sympathy for opioid addicts from law makers because they see the immense pain addicts and their families are in and they know more Americans have died from this crisis than in many major wars, but because of these aforementioned unspoken promises, they have no intention of ever acting on the remedy as that threatens the big bucks from donors that they want to keep more than they want to tangibly help their constituents.
Perhaps there’s less sympathy for the crack epidemic because federal legislators know it was their decision making failures that not only created this unrivaled failure known as the war on drugs, but aggravated it to this monumental degree, so the lack of sympathy is stemming from the avoidance of confronting this policy mistake. Our international allies like the Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland have taken a more informed approach to addiction and illicit drugs by actually decriminalizing them as a method of opening up opportunities to properly tend to the needs of addicts as individuals with a medical problem instead of immediately labeling them criminals, locking them out of any meaningful rehabilitation. Our international allies that have taken a chance with this nuanced, research-informed approach have been pleasantly surprised with its successes in decreasing drug related illnesses and deaths; with some countries like Portugal even boasting a decrease in In addition to the benefits for addicts, studies from around the world have shown that widespread decriminalization greatly eases the burden on police resources which trickles down to ease the financial burden on the taxpayer.
“Decriminalisation is associated with improved health outcomes as more people who use drugs feel able to access treatment.”
- Drugs: International Comparators,’ 2014, United Kingdom, Home Office
“Decriminalisation leads to improved social outcomes, as criminal justice system costs come down, and as the prospects of those detected with drugs look up, for example in terms of employment and their relationships with significant others. Positive results have also been reported with regard to recovery and recidivism.”
- ‘Decriminalisation of drug use and possession in Australia – A briefing note,’ 2016, UNSW Australia
So what stops American leaders from even entertaining the notion of this when there are so many signs pointing to this being a worthwhile approach? The horrific answer is that it is too profitable to turn back now.
Even with all their differences, the crack and opioid epidemics both highlight the monumental failure of the war on drugs as well as the inability of the American healthcare system to meet the needs of its people. Those in recovery, families of those in recovery, those who have lost loved ones and allies alike must avoid the urge to play the game of: “Who suffered more?” For suffering is not a competition and can only possibly be made worse by mistaking it for one. Giving in to this very human reaction does nothing to solve the problems at hand but only further divides us, which is arguably the desire of those who seek to financially benefit from seeing these broken systems stay the same. To all those who have lost their lives to addiction we owe this legal advocacy, inner reflection and emotional self-discipline to see this problem through. This includes not only those who are no longer on this earth with us, but people like 18 year old high school senior Keith Jackson who metaphorically lost his life to the war on drugs, and all of the millions of Americans like him and their families.
Looking to Learn More?
Try this: ‘Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty’ by Patrick R. Keefe
This book details the history of the Sackler family who owns Purdue Pharma- the company who makes Oxycontin- and the countless lawsuits they’ve been at the center of and their efforts to avoid taking real responsibility for their role in fueling the opioid crisis. These events culminated in a rather frustrating recent court settlement decision so pick up this book to get all the history. (They also just so happen to be Rhode Island natives!)
“Put simply, this book will make your blood boil.”
- John Carreyrou, New York Times Review
1) Unaids.org. “Decriminalization Works, but Too Few Countries Are Taking the Bold Step.” UNAIDS, United Nations, 3 Mar. 2020, www.unaids.org
2) The Uncertain Hour, Marketplace. “30 Years Ago, George H.W. Bush Held up a Bag of Crack on Live TV. Where'd He Get It?” WHYY on NPR, PBS, 26 Mar. 2019,
3) Hughes, C., Ritter, A., Chalmers, J., Lancaster, K., Barratt, M. & Moxham-Hall, V. (2016). "Decriminalisation of drug use and possession in Australia – A briefing note." Sydney: Drug Policy Modelling Program, NDARC, UNSW Australia.
4) Shanahan M, Hughes C & McSweeney T 2017. "Police diversion for cannabis offences: Assessing outcomes and cost-effectiveness. Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice" no. 532. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
5) United Kingdom Home Office. “Drugs: International Comparators.” GOV.UK, United Kingdom, Oct. 2014.