We're Really Starting to Panic About Heroin in America

By Michael Tracey

A recent demonstration raising awareness of an uptick in heroin use in Michigan. Photo via Flickr user Ricky Cain

Last week offered a window into the steadily intensifying collective freak-out over heroin use in America. Republican Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana signed into law a bill raising the maximum penalty for heroin distribution in his state to 99 years of imprisonment. Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald, a Democrat, proclaimed that users of heroin were not being punished severely enough. New Jersey law enforcement officials announced that a sweeping 1.5-month multi-agency anti-heroin “initiative” had yielded at least 325 arrests, 280 of which were apparently “users” only. And Texas authorities said that the amount of heroin seized in the state has exploded by 500 percent since 2013.

What the hell is going on here?

In this era of purported Twitter enlightenment, a notion is sometimes propagated that respectable society has finally transcended the bad old days of reactionary, anti-empirical drug policy, marked by buffoonish, overheated anti-drug rhetoric and an emphasis on meting out retributive justice for relatively minor offenses. Public figures today profess to advocate a more “compassion”-based approach. And it’s true that there has been some degree of transcendence, insofar as the laughably insane rhetoric of the 1980s is heard less frequently today. Yet somehow, right now, in June 2014, we find ourselves in the midst of what can only be described as a classic, full-fledged moral panic, this time over heroin—the kind of panic that inevitably wreaks massive suffering on society’s most vulnerable. To which I respond: Are we really going down this road again?

Considering the United States’ record of enacting spectacularly damaging public policy in response to perceived drug “epidemics“—i.e., erecting a regime of mass incarceration and punishment to counter the alleged scourge of crack—perhaps we are at a moment when our collective sense of skepticism should be especially heightened. Politicians are increasingly advancing proposals to expand law enforcement powers and resources on the basis of questionable statistical inferences; we’ve seen this movie before. Predictably, media are by and large reporting on the issue in the familiar language of fraught moralism, with tacit acceptance of the government’s premises thrown in for good measure. On May 28, even the estimable public radio outfit WNYC matter-of-factly tweeted, “NY Senate Task Force Moves to Attack Heroin Epidemic.”

Wait just a sec, please: It seems a little strange to simply take as established fact that the state of New York is currently beset by a heroin “epidemic”—and even if a heroin epidemic did exist, whether “attacking” is called for would be an entirely separate question. First, we ought to clarify what exactly is meant by “epidemic.” The term is colloquially associated with viral outbreaks and other epidemiological trends. Heroin is, of course, not a communicable disease, but an opioid that happens to be prohibited by the government; no one can “catch” heroin in the way they could catch a virus or a rash. Thus the term is at the very least imprecise, and at worst wildly misleading. And if there were ever circumstances under which journalistic precision should be most demanded, you’d think it would be with respect to declarations of public health crises.

Then we have the exhortation to attack this alleged problem. Invariably, an "attack” equals some action by government officials, most often in the realm of law enforcement. One recent such effort was announced May 27 by Democratic US Senator Chuck Schumer, who held a press conference calling for the allocation of $100 million to the interstate High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program. “Schumer hopes the funding will help develop information-sharing between federal agencies and local law enforcement,” reported the Newark Star-Ledger.

I figured it would be advisable at this juncture to consult with Kathleen Frydl, the historian and author of The Drug Wars in America: 1940–1973, who has documented past instances of moral panics giving rise to deleterious public-policy outcomes. Frydl noted with bafflement that no media apparently thought it relevant to press Schumer on the wisdom of his heroin-interdiction proposal. “Senator, what makes you think $100 million on ramped-up heroin enforcement will provide any meaningful response to the heroin epidemic?” she wondered, articulating a theoretical query along those lines. “In the wake of sustained failure, what makes you think this new step will make any difference whatsoever? Hundreds of millions have come before it doing precisely the same thing.”

Schumer is not some dunce. He can recognize that the war on drugs has failed—a matter, pretty much, of conventional wisdom at this point. It therefore stands to reason that there are other motives for his proposal. Indeed, law enforcement authorities have a vested interest in fostering the belief that additional funds for their agencies are necessary to combat a emergent wave of drug crime. “The state has come to rely upon the very tools that the drug war furnishes it,” Frydl added, “whether it's policing across the country, or supplying aid covertly and otherwise throughout the developing world. The drug war provides the state with many valued tools of statecraft.” And the New York law enforcement apparatus is a formidable constituency of Schumer’s.

Expanding the powers of the state to control heroin has been a thoroughly bipartisan venture of late. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has already embraced a whole host of new interdiction initiatives and "public awareness" campaigns, and is frequently asked about the government’s role in addressing heroin use at his town-hall meetings across the state. Christie is also an avid supporter of so-called “drug court,” which is generally portrayed as a broad-minded alternative to the criminal justice system for drug offenders, but ironically is itself an extension of the criminal justice system. “When people can seek treatment with confidentiality and no fear of state reprisal, that's when I'll know we're in a treatment-based world,” Frydl said. “Anything that belongs to the criminal justice apparatus is part and parcel with the drug war.”

 

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But for the time being, authorities in positions of power are fomenting hysteria. Last week, at a nondescript high school in a thoroughly nondescript section of New Jersey, I attended a presentation advertised as addressing the “nationwide heroin epidemic.” Upon arrival, I learned the event was being led by Douglas Collier, a former DEA and CIA agent. Strident in his fatherly bravado, Collier defined his basic mission as to “eliminate the people who are poisoning our communities,” i.e., people suspected of committed crimes associated with heroin and other opioids.

Collier carried himself in a manner reminiscent of how your officious eighth-grade health-class teacher maintained order. He made a point of calling on attendees who hadn’t raised their hands, apologizing for “putting them on the spot” while nonetheless putting them on the spot to participate. His PowerPoint slides displayed disconcerting mug shots of young people arrested for heroin-related violations. The prototypical heroin user had previously been thought of as that “deep-alley person,” he warned the crowd, “but now it’s our kids.” To defeat this alleged menace, the mantra Collier aimed to drill home in parents was simple: “Zero tolerance. You’re not their friend. Drugs kill.” He urged them to intensify their child-surveillance tactics.

After the session, I couldn’t help walking up to Collier and challenging his shtick. Prefacing my remarks with, “And this is not meant as a slight, but…” I asked why he, rather than, say, a public-health professional or an academic, was best qualified to speak on this issue. If heroin addiction is principally thought to be a “health” problem, then depicting it through the lens of law enforcement interdiction efforts seems ill-advised. Collier responded by characterizing himself as “a guy that understands the prevention side, the treatment side, and the law enforcement side. What I’m doing is collaboration, and I’m not afraid to take the lead. Because that was my expertise in DEA.” Now he works with the New Jersey Attorney General’s office as a “law enforcement liaison” for public-outreach projects.

 

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None of this is to discount the mounting anecdotal evidence of social problems stemming from heroin abuse, or any one individual’s lived experiences. But the statistics suggest that proclamations of an "epidemic" suddenly gripping the nation might be overblown. Use of the drug could well be increasing in prevalence in certain areas, but it is just as much worth bearing in mind that federal government data says 0.3 percent of Americans aged 12 and older used heroin in 2012, an increase of 0.1 percent since 2002. Now, an increase of a tenth of a percent might be worth examining, but that it should necessarily be reason to declare an “epidemic”—with all the term’s attendant hysterics—seems dubious. There is also the potential that a spike in heroin use could be mainly attributable to people switching over from prescription opioids, meaning overall use of opioids may not have increased much, if at all.

I would even concede that certain public-policy actions in response to recent trends in heroin use may well be reasonable. But deploying additional law enforcement resources to interdict the drug and arrest nonviolent offenders would not seem to be among them, and neither would be stoking needless frenzy in the populace. A better first step would probably be to exclaim together, once and for all: “Wow, drug prohibition is continuing to fail dramatically, and we should really attempt something else.”

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