White Families Call for a Gentler War on Drugs

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The heroin problem creep from low-income urban areas into the more affluent suburban and rural areas with primarily white populations

Today’s heroin crisis is unalike anything the nation has experienced. In what is now being called as the worst drug overdose epidemic in United States history, the dark shroud of drug addiction ills over a new terrain. As the heroin problem creep from low-income urban areas with a predominantly black population into the more affluent suburban and rural areas with primarily white populations –a growing army of white families whose lives were affected have taken a stand and are voicing out their sentiments on this growing affliction. The fight against drugs is changing its face –families who lost loved ones now seek a gentler war on drugs.

The heroin epidemic has scaled into all demographic groups; it has risen steeply among the white population of America; in a retrospective analysis  of the changing trend of heroin use in the United States over the past 50 years, approximately 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white, involving primarily white men and women in their late 20s living outside of large urban areas.

The trend of heroin’s spread into suburbs and small towns is an effect of an earlier wave of addiction to prescription painkillers; both of which are the main factors in the epidemic that is ravaging the country that has caused 8,260 deaths in 2013; a drastic increase, about four folds, since 2000.

Death from opioid like OxyContin and other pain medication overdose kills about 44 people these days overtaking deaths caused by car crashes.

Recently, a family in Newton, New Hampshire lost their young daughter, Courtney Griffin to heroin overdose. When Courtney was addicted to heroin, she left home, lied and stole from her parents just to support her $400-a-day habit. The Griffins never filed a police report and kept her addiction a secret – until she was found dead, overdosed, in her boyfriend’s grandmother’s house last year. Doug and Pamela Griffin decided to accept the harsh and life changing truth about their daughter’s death during her funeral.

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New Hampshire has been the epicentre of the heroin infestation. The death rate for overdoses in this state has risen 68 percent since 2013. Last year, 325 people died of opioid overdose. Fortunately, emergency medical workers saved lives in more than 1,900 cases on the same year by administering naloxone, a counter medication that works by reversing the effects of opioid overdose.

Ironically, for New Hampshire’s 100,000 individuals who need treatment, the state’s publicly financed system can serve only 4 percent of them. The state ranks second to last, ahead only of Texas, in access to treatment programs.

In an interview in their humble abode in southeastern New Hampshire, Doug, 63, shared his sentiments about the whole ordeal. He recalled, “When I was a kid, junkies were the worst,” noting that “junkies” is a word he would never use now. He further related that he saw them in the office he worked at in New York City. “They’re working right next to you and you don’t even know it. They’re in my daughter’s bedroom – they are my daughter.”

The Griffins, along with the growing number of drug torn families – many of them in the suburbs and small towns – are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs –from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.

“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these parents are parents who are empowered,” said the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli who is dubbed as the nation’s drug czar. “They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”

Mr. Botticelli regularly speaks to some of the families as he himself is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 26 years.

The old industrial cities, quiet small towns and rural outposts are seeing a near-daily parade of drug summit meetings, task forces, vigils against heroin, pronouncements from lawmakers and news media reports on the heroin crisis.

These days, in rare bipartisan or even nonpartisan agreement, punishment is out and compassion is in. Mothers and fathers now backlash against the harsh tactics of traditional drug enforcement, their efforts also include lobbying statehouses, holding rallies and starting non-profit organizations.

The heroin drug epidemic is now one of the foremost topics that both parties of presidential candidates tackle. Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted forums on the issue where Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina share their personal stories of loss while upholding the message for more care and empathy.

Last week, President Obama travelled to West Virginia, a mostly white state with high levels of overdoses, to discuss his $133 million proposal to expand access for drug treatment and prevention programs. The Justice Department is also preparing to release roughly 6,000 inmates from federal prisons as part of an effort to roll back the severe penalties issued to nonviolent drug dealers in decades past.

And in one of the most striking shifts in this new era, some local police departments have stopped punishing many heroin users. In Gloucester, Mass., those who walk into the police station and ask for help, even if they are carrying drugs or needles, are no longer arrested. Instead, they are diverted to treatment, despite questions about the police departments’ unilateral authority to do so. It is an approach being replicated by three dozen other police departments around the country.

Some black scholars said they welcomed the shift, while expressing frustration that earlier calls by African-Americans for a more empthatic approach were largely ingnored.

“How these policies evolve in the first place, and the connection with race, seems very stark,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which examines racial issues in the criminal justice system.

Still, he and other experts said, a broad consensus seems to be emerging: The drug problem will not be solved by arrests alone, but rather by treatment.


The drug problem will not be solved by arrests alone, but rather by treatment

Parents like the Griffins say that while they recognize the racial shift in heroin use, politicians and law enforcement are responding in this new way because “they realized what they were doing wasn’t working.”

“They’re paying more attention because people are screaming about it,” Mr. Griffin said. “I work with 100 people every day – parents, people in recovery, addicts – who are invading the statehouse, doing everything we can to make as much noise as we can to try to save these kids.”


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