Opioids and Heroin: From Drug War to Public Health Crisis

Oct 7, 2016

"This is not just a white problem now. This wasn't just a black problem. This is a community problem."
Pastor Joseph Coleman

Drug epidemics are not new in the United States. But there’s something very distinctive about the demographics of this latest wave, which centers around opioid and heroin abuse. It cuts across socio-economic and racial divides. 

In fact, the death rate in Connecticut from opioid overdose is highest in affluent, white communities. So what that has meant for the response, and how does it look to survivors of previous epidemics?

Back in 1971, President Richard Nixon announced, “America’s public enemy number one is drug abuse.” He declared a War on Drugs -- a mindset that lasted through several decades of public policy.

In New York, Governor Nelson Rockefeller's draconian laws became a by-word for the tough treatment of first-time offenders. Dramatic police footage of high-profile busts of so-called crack houses became a staple of TV news during the 1980s.

While drug busts are still with us, and there’s certainly a strong police response to the heroin and opioid epidemic of recent years, the public tone is very different now.

“This is one of the greatest public health crises of our time: the opioid epidemic,” said Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently.

Meanwhile, President Obama has said, "When it comes to substance abuse treatment and recovery, those things are possible if we work together, and if we care about each other.”

For the first time since Nixon's declaration of war, drug abuse and overdose are beginning to be viewed primarily as a public health problem.

"The so-called war on drugs was really a war on people of color," Kelvin Young, told WNPR's Where We Live recently.

A former heroin addict himself, Young is now a wellness and addiction counselor at Toivo in Hartford.

Kelvin Young.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

He saw those decades-ago problems with crack cocaine up close and personal.

"I have four older brothers," Young said, "and when the crack epidemic hit our communities, it personally affected three of my brothers, and two of them went to prison as a result. It really tore my family apart."

He said back then, overdose was not seen as a problem to be solved, and naloxone wasn’t carried by every first responder. The difference he sees now? A drug epidemic has hit the families of those who influence and set public policy.

"Lawyers' kids are overdosing, politicians' kids are overdosing, doctors' kids are overdosing," he said. "So now instead of looking at it as a criminal offense, let’s look at it as a public health issue -- which is great, but it is a little frustrating."

Pastor Joseph Coleman founded St. John’s church in Groton some 30 years ago. It’s what he calls an evangelistic ministry; its diverse congregation sets out to help those who’ve fallen on hard times.

"There have been people who have come with drug problems, alcohol problems, we have had people who have come out of jail, prison. And you’ve got to love people. Whatever their problem is, you’ve got to say, ok, you did it, it’s over, God forgives you -- now forgive yourself," he said.

Pastor Joseph Coleman at St. John's Church in Groton, Connecticut.
Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR

But ask Pastor Coleman about how the black community was treated during the crack epidemic.

"Oh, now you hit a sore spot. You hit a spot that makes me angry," Coleman said. "When crack cocaine was being used by my people -- that’s who were using it -- Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York demonized it to the point that most of my people went to jail for crack cocaine for years."

And now?

"Now, the white community is upset because their people are using heroin," he said. "So the thing is, why are you so upset or so willing now to help, because you see the heroin taking your kids away when you watched mine being devastated and you weren’t up in arms?"

Tamara Lanier is the criminal justice chair for the NAACP in Connecticut, and she’s also been a probation officer for 25 years. One of her primary concerns is that in this new climate, there should be equal access.

"We want equity -- not only in the criminal justice system, equity in treatment," she told WNPR. "We want to make sure that communities of color -- low income communities as well -- that they receive the same benefits of the law that other people are."

Lanier commends Governor Dannel Malloy for his Second Chance Society initiative, which attempts to make amends for injustices in the past. But she also believes it's possible the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, and there isn’t enough legal sanction for addicts.

"Sometimes, I talk with parents, and I say you have to call the police, you have to make the police aware they’re stealing from you, you have to make the police aware of the criminal things they're doing," she said. "And there’s a great reluctance, because they don’t want to involve the police."

Those parents see having a criminal record as the worst thing that can happen to their child, but Lanier said that in fact, it may be a way to save them from overdose and death.

"At least at that point when they’re arrested, you have an opportunity to get their attention, you have an opportunity to separate them from the drugs and get them on the path of starting to detox from those drugs," she said. "It is an opportunity at life, and an opportunity at health, where I think otherwise they wouldn’t get it."

Despite complex feelings about the past, Pastor Coleman is among those who also see the current crisis as a way to bridge divides.

"The thing is, we've got to work with this together," he said. "This is not just a white problem now. This wasn’t just a black problem. This is a community problem. And we better work together -- because if we don’t, it’s going to destroy all of us."

WNPR’s Opioid Addiction Crisis Reporting Initiative is supported by Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network’s MATCH Program.