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Race, Class And The Response To Today's Heroin Epidemic

This week, Here & Now is producing a series about the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic, and the shift that seems to be happening, in many cases, toward treating drug addiction as a health issue, not a crime.

With that shift, some have pointed out the stark differences between the response to this epidemic – largely centered in more affluent, white suburbs – and the response to the heroin and crack epidemics of previous decades, largely concentrated in poor, black urban areas.

In the late 1980s and ’90s, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke was way out ahead on this issue, shocking people by advocating for decriminalizing the use of drugs, and for treating addiction as a public health crisis.

Host Robin Young discusses race, class and the response to today’s prescription opioid and heroin epidemic with Schmoke and Marc Mauer, executive director of the non-profit The Sentencing Project and author of “Race to Incarcerate.”

Interview Highlights

On the policy shift from jailing drug users to focusing on recovery

Kurt Schmoke: “I see signs from national policy, and policy at the state level, moving in that direction. I’m not sure yet whether we’ve really gotten to the point where I can say it’s where I’d like it to be. We sure have made a very positive change. But I do still see signs of class differences and race differences in the way we are approaching it and hopefully those differences can be eliminated in the next few years.”

Marc Mauer: “It’s an encouraging shift. We’ve had this war on drugs for 30 years now, and we have record numbers of people incarcerated for drug offenses. We’re beginning to see more of a substantial shift right now. I think every American family has someone close to them who has an alcohol or drug problem, people can understand that. So we’re beginning to see more use of drug courts, drug treatments, instead of prison. The problem is, we’ve sort of institutionalized this whole prison and mandatory sentencing apparatus so heavily it’s very hard to untangle that at this point.”

On the perception that drug use disproportionately affects poor African-Americans

Marc Mauer: “Some people’s children in society get a second chance in life, they get to make mistakes, and other people’s kids don’t. And this is not always or necessarily a conscious strategy or idea, I think much of this is unconscious racism, how we think of things. Most people have more compassion for people who look and think like themselves, who live in their neighborhoods. So people who are describing these things when they see this young attractive suburban girl caught up in a drug problem, they’re more likely to reach out and be sympathetic. Is that sympathy good? Of course it is, but how do we get over those lines of race and class and recognize that the child of someone else who may be a different race and social class, they’re going through virtually the same problem. And it’s really distressing after all these decades, we’re still viewing things in that way.”

Kurt Schmoke: “I’d like to follow up on that, I listened to an interview recently with the governor of Oklahoma, and she was talking about the heroin problem and she made a distinction between the people next door as opposed to those who were trying to break into the house next door. And it was though she was saying that those who had the heroin addiction and were led to a life of crime, they should be treated very differently than the person next door. But the bottom line is that if we extended treatment early, and a lot of prevention activities early, we wouldn’t have to worry about the problem of either one of them, and that’s what we’re hoping with national policy. I was a mayor for 12 years and unfortunately for 10 of those years, we had 300 or more homicides each year in our city, and unfortunately the bulk of those homicides were because of the warring factions on the war on drugs and I just knew that if we had policies to take the profit out of distributing drugs at the street level, we could have saved many, many lives.”

Guests

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke addresses the Sentencing Project conference in Washington, Jan. 27, 1989 on new approaches to sentencing and high crime rates. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
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Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke addresses the Sentencing Project conference in Washington, Jan. 27, 1989 on new approaches to sentencing and high crime rates. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

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