Racist 'crack wars' approach won't work with opioid epidemic

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HBO’s fictional series “The Wire” depicted drug dealers on the streets of Baltimore.

The role race seems to be playing in how America handles its opioid crisis, which is being termed an epidemic, meaning a medical problem, should not be ignored or glossed over. Compare it with how crack addiction in the 1990s was principally considered a problem for law enforcement.

Seeing strung-out suburban white kids passed out on city streets, selling their bodies, or panhandling for change to pay for another fix is intolerable to some of the same public officials who turned up their noses at black and brown crackheads.

But race isn’t the only reason for the disparity. Let’s not forget the violence.

There really was a drug war in the 1990s, but the Drug Enforcement Administration wasn’t always on the scene. The war was among rival drug lords who shot it out in big cities to protect their market saturation. They made the neighborhoods they ruled as dangerous as any battlefield during military combat.

I was reminded of that recently while watching an episode of the old HBO series The Wire, which was created by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun police reporter who co-wrote the books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood with former Baltimore detective Ed Burns.

I didn’t know Simon well but hung out a few times with him and his lunch buddies at the Bridge, a greasy spoon near the Sun. Usually at the table were Mike Ollove, Michael Olesker, Sandy Banisky, Rafael Alvarez, and Laura Lippman, who later married Simon and became a novelist. Laura’s father, Theo Lippman Jr., was on the Sun editorial board, which I joined later after covering City Hall.

But when I arrived at the Sun in 1994, my first job (so I could get to know the city, my editor said) was as a general assignment reporter. I didn’t cover cops or drugs, but some assignments meant walking through neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester, where crack dealers openly sold their wares.

Customers would politely line up as if they were waiting their turn to pay the cashier at Walmart. Once, police shared a surveillance video with the Sun that showed crack buyers lined up for a block to make their purchases. That’s how bad the crack “epidemic” was.

But unlike most of the heroin junkies you see on the streets now, not all the crackheads seemed as if they hadn’t bathed or eaten a good meal in weeks. On Fridays, it wasn’t unusual to see working people – in hardhats, wearing a necktie, or hospital scrubs –  join a queue to buy crack after getting paid.

In time, I learned not to fear the young men slinging dope. As long as I didn’t disrupt their transactions, they might give me a curious look but didn’t care whom I talked to or where I went. That’s not what would happen with any suspected competitor, which is why Baltimore’s murder rate shot up.

Baltimore averaged 300 homicides a year in the 1990s, and most of the murders had links to the illegal drug trade. Drug dealers killing each other and innocents caught in their crossfire were typical victims.

It was the same in Philadelphia, which, with its larger population, saw murders peak at 503 in 1990 and stay above 400 homicides annually through the 1990s.

Ironically, homicides are again creeping up in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other cities, even though they are not experiencing the gun battles and assassinations that marked the crack years. Police say today’s homicides are more personal, but drugs can still be a factor.

Public officials from the president to police chiefs decided incarceration was the answer to the drug-related violence that held communities hostage in the 1990s. Lock ’em up, and throw away the key.

The justice system decided crack was more dangerous to society than its more expensive progenitor, powdered cocaine, so sentences were much harsher for crimes involving crack.

The impact on the families of low-income, mostly black and brown defendants was devastating. The long sentences broke up families, increased single-family households, and raised the level of desperation in many inner-city neighborhoods.

The grossly unfair disparate treatment of crack cocaine offenses persisted until 2010, when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act. The U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2011 voted to retroactively apply the new guidelines to more than 12,000 people incarcerated before the law was passed, 85 percent of them African Americans.

Given that sad history, one might assume this country would never again consider the criminal justice system the best vehicle to solve an addiction problem. Many inmates come out of America’s prisons more likely to abuse drugs than when they went in. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions is acting as if it’s still the 1990s.

Sessions has reversed an Obama administration directive for the Justice Department to stop seeking long sentences for some drug crimes, and he has asked Congress to restore his power to stop states from allowing sales of medical marijuana, which, by federal law, is still illegal.

“The department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives,” Sessions said.

It’s a fine statement, but why isn’t he talking about the pharmaceutical industry, which manufactures and encourages physicians to overly prescribe the narcotics that lead to opioid abuse? If Sessions wants to solve the opioid problem, he should include going after pharma.

This country in the 1990s treated America’s crack cocaine epidemic as if it were primarily due to a lack of character suffered by people who didn’t have the will to avoid addiction. Let’s not go down that racist road again. Fortunately, others are trying to make sure we don’t.

Mayors, governors, and even President Trump have promised to put more emphasis on treatment than incarceration. Sessions has made comments that suggest he feels that way too, but his actions speak otherwise.

That’s why it’s important to remind this country of how it treated crack addicts. Maybe that will help strengthen its will to treat the opioid crisis differently.

Harold Jackson is editorial page manager for Philadelphia Media Network.

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