Once upon a less-humane time, folks struggling with drug and alcohol addiction were characterized as criminals, called "junkies" and "low-lives," and considered broken, dangerous, and responsible for the impending downfall of society. Two decades ago, political careers and nightly news broadcasts were bolstered by aggressive responses to what was then viewed as a plague—a moral deficit affecting those people.
To stamp out this scourge, newly militarized police departments teamed up with the Justice Department to swoop down and save the day with S.W.A.T. gear, draconian policies, and at the very least—scathing rhetoric.
But things are different now. The fruitless War on Drugs rages on, but now that the struggle has outgrown inner cities and reached rural and Middle America, sympathy, abundant resources, and an aversion to criminalization are en vogue. Imagine that. Police departments (well, some of them) are shifting from zero-tolerance policies and jailing those in need of help towards directing them to rehabilitation programs and facilities. Anti-overdose drugs are even becoming mandatory for first responders to carry, yielding new opportunities to save lives instead of condemning them. Oh, the humanity.
"While the country is having this great epiphany, there are still countless communities that have been devastated by harsh, draconian policy," says Kassandra Frederique, New York State director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Moving from a criminal-justice approach to a public-health one regarding drug use, with a lesser role of law enforcement, is something that people have been advocating for for decades."
Frederique considers the recent progress we've made "a reaffirmation that white lives matter more." We asked people who battled dependency before the national push towards a kinder War on Drugs how they feel about the softening, newly sympathetic approach to abuse and addiction.
Bruce "Blue" Rivera, 36, New York City
I got heavy into drugs while working as a promoter at the Tunnel, this huge nightclub where you'd see the biggest rappers on any given night. Initially, getting high was just part of the culture. It was just one of those things. We were "candy flipping" (taking LSD and ecstasy together) and that worked until I had a bad acid trip. Then I got put onto taking ecstasy and Special K [ketamine] together, which was the best and worst thing to happen to me.
I was fucking up at work, late all the time, and not handling my responsibilities. I was 30 pounds lighter than when I left the military. The shit wasn't cool. Now, you can laugh at Snoop and Martha Stewart being high on TV, but before, we weren't laughing at it and people were having their lives ruined over shit like the Rockefeller Laws.
There was no rehab for me. We didn't have that. You had to fight and struggle and your mama probably slapped the shit out of you if she found out you were high. Things were different. There was no, 'Let's go to this nice place and hug and talk about our feelings.' Before, [when you were in recovery,] you were demonized. Now, you're celebrated.
Pamela Roderick, 63, Stockton, CA
My heroin abuse started in the 70s. I was attending the local junior college and met two brothers. The youngest brother almost immediately offered cocaine, so we started getting high together. Long story short, I was eventually introduced to a third brother who was the major drug dealer of the family. He manipulated me with heroin and money and I fell in the trap. I was 21 with no street smarts. Before I knew, it I was hooked like a dog. I wasn't able to get away from him until he went to prison.
No one cared when drugs and death were contained in the slums. When black and latino people were overdosing and committing crimes because of drugs, this created jobs—more jails, prisons, courts, probation officers, and parole officers.
Way back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, hard drugs were mainly a ghetto thing. No one cared, but when white middle class kids began to get more involved, it began to change the face of addiction. All of a sudden, diversion programs popped up, alternatives to jail time began, programs and treatment centers abounded.
Joan Stringer, 74, Detroit, MI
I was on cocaine. I had a friend whose house we'd go by and sniff cocaine and it just grew from there until I needed it. Cocaine makes you feel marvelous. That's why so many people get hooked.
I'm a rapper. I go under the name Grandma Rap. One time, I was performing for this family during the holidays. When they called me [to the stage], my buddy and I had gone into the bathroom to get a quick hit, and as I was walking up, I passed out. I woke up in the hospital. I had had a stroke and it paralyzed me on one side. That stuff is horrible. [It] messes you up real bad.
Back then, when they used heroin and crack and you saw it on the news at night, it was so ugly. They had some programs but we didn't know about them. My sister was using heroin. Wasn't nobody reaching out to her. They didn't have no support for these people. But they're taking care of them now cause they don't just look like us now. It's everywhere. Times changed, I guess.
James Stringer, 54, Detroit, MI
I joined the Navy when I was 17 and came back to Detroit on recruiting duty at 22. I was the top recruiter in Michigan and had a government vehicle in my driveway. I had a real bad car accident in my government vehicle while en route to pick up a recruit, and first tried cocaine while I was on leave for 90 days at home with 300 stitches.
Later on, I was one of the best supervisors on a Navy ship in Jacksonville. I was in college full-time and dealing with this addiction. I was getting all this praise but I was doing crack when I was named Recruiter of the Year. They have all those programs and treatment options and stuff now because these white girls in the suburbs are hooked on narcotics and pills and now it's a catastrophe. But it's been in our community for 40 years.
It's a different time now. The support hasn't really changed. People just know more now. Things evolve and people evolve with them. The attitude and the treatment should be the same for everyone, whether you're an old black man with a heroin addiction or a young white girl in her mother's cabinet looking for Percocet. Even though the perception has changed and my experience was not like it would be now, I'm not angry about none of that. This stuff has been around a while, but we're just learning how to really deal.
Brian Broome, 40-ish, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
When I started using drugs, it was club drugs, like cocaine and ecstasy. Everyone was doing them and I actually used them the most with people in academia. But, it was viewed as classy and sophisticated. We would do it at parties and then everyone would talk about academic stuff.
When I started scouring the streets is when it got ugly. When I had to go to "bad neighborhoods" and housing projects. Then heroin came on the scene and my first person [a white friend] died. And everyone was so sad because he "had so much potential." But they blamed the drug and not him. They blamed the drug. That's the difference, if you ask me. When it's white people, they blame the drug and when it's black people they blame a faulty character. I go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings now and there is always a white kid who's addicted, who shows up with a parent. The parents blame "Mexicans." This is why they want to build a wall.
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