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Why Has The Opioid Crisis Prompted Far More Compassion Than The Crack Epidemic of the Past?

Barry Sweet
In this Feb. 14, 1984 file photo, former first lady Nancy Reagan participates in a drug education class. She was prominent in the "Just Say No" campaign that was part of the War on Drugs and encouraged abstinence as a form of drug control.

The opioid crisis has prompted a reckoning with the devastating effects of joblessness and isolation throughout rural and post-industrial America.

EkowYankah, a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York, says the public response is far more compassionate than the reaction to the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

Yankah spoke with 90.5 WESA’s An-Li Herring about the significance of race in the country’s evolution from the War on Drugs to the current focus on treating addiction.


This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

EKOW YANKAH: When those same problems were in the African-American community, they were viewed as problems with African-American individuals or African-American communities, something pathological, something about the way in which crack mothers insufficiently cared about their babies, or the permanent ways in which these children were broken. So it's hard not to be very bittersweet, even if it's the case that you're happy that we're changing two generations of rhetoric not to notice that it comes, as it always does, painfully across racial lines.

Credit Sari Goodfriend / Cardozo School of Law
Cardozo School of Law
Professor Ekow Yankah describes as "bittersweet" the progression from a tough-on-crime approach to addiction to one that puts a premium on treatment and compassion.

AN-LI HERRING: How do you respond to those who say there are a lot of factors besides race that can explain why the opioid crisis is playing out so differently from the War on Drugs? I mean, you could say we have a greater understanding of addiction and how mental health is related to that, right?

YANKAH: I suppose, like anything, there's no one factor that causes everything to change. So, if others want to say that there are at least other things that are involved, that's probably right. But it seems really quite convenient to say that it took 30 years of two full generations in some senses, of young people being born and policed and imprisoned en masse -- young black and brown people being fed to a criminal-law system. And then suddenly, when this same type of problem explodes across America, and particularly across racial lines, suddenly we grew enlightened.

I think those who have that kind of argument owe us an explanation as to why it is that, when this exact same problem hits white communities or those with political power, suddenly we become enlightened.

HERRING: Could you explain how interpersonal biases can trickle up and create some of the systemic disparities we see with the opioid crisis?

YANKAH: You see police chiefs now saying it's important that we see minor crimes as symptoms of addiction rather than of criminality. I remember one police chief who said, "I now understand that these are real people with souls that need saving, and I don't understand why I didn't see that before." I've seen police chiefs who say, "We're going to put you in rehab again and again and again until we save you."

The surgeon general of the United States just recommended that not just police officers, but that civilians, carry overdose medication for heroin and other opioid overdoses. And so, there is no question that the way in which we speak about this allows us to aim at different types of solutions.

HERRING: What do you suggest that elected officials and other people listening to this do with this information? I mean, you could say the past has passed -- what's the value in studying how things have changed?

YANKAH: I think that's a great question because the point of this is not just to induce guilt. The point of this is [that] we have to remember these examples when the next thing occurs. We are so quick to forget, every time there's a new challenge, how jaded and how racialized our responses are. [The point is] so that next time we talk about for example job relief in communities that are even more devastated by globalization and lack of job opportunities, we don't just roll our eyes when it's minority communities but perk up our ears when it's the white Rust Belt. The reason we have to care about pointing out these mistakes, the reason we have to care about noticing our hypocrisy in the past, is so that we can do better in the future.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.