The Media Narrative Around Drug Use Is Shifting, But the Harsh Policies for Drug Crimes Are Not

A "new face of heroin" is changing the discourse on drug addicts in the media. But has it translated into more humane public policy? Not quite.


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Has the media narrative shifted when it comes to certain types of drug users? While it's increasingly common to find news reports describing heroin and opioid use as an "epidemic," a "plague," and even "an apocalypse," media are also paying attention to what a new type of "user" looks like, and have adjusted their moral panic accordingly. 

Overall, coverage of U.S. heroin use inflates the scope of the problem by failing to provide relevant context. Americans use drugs like cocaine and hallucinogens at higher rates than heroin, there are still less than a million current heroin users in the U.S., and more Americans died from alcohol-induced causes than heroin and opioids combined in 2014, to provide some perspective. 

But a "new face of heroin" is shifting the discourse on drug addicts in the media. Since introduced by ABC 20/20 in 2010, the "young, middle-class, white" American heroin addict has captured much media attention, and it's become accepted as truth that middle-class, suburban youth are now heroin's biggest customer. The drug addicts du jour are no longer so "other"—neither the poor, urban blacks that fueled crack cocaine panic nor the poor, rural whites of methamphetamine lore. They're "our sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters," they're community members. As one father told The New York Times in 2015, "[heroin users are] working right next to you and you don't even know it. They're in my daughter's bedroom—they are my daughter."

This new (white) face of drug use has led to white families and politicians seeking a "gentler approach to the war on drugs," The New York Times recently noted. And indeed, there's some truth to the idea that shifting media coverage of who is using heroin has led to more empathetic responses from law-enforcement leaders and politicians, at least in terms of how they talk about this issue. Increasingly, town halls are being held to discuss how to compassionately combat the "heroin epidemic."

But has the new, empathetic tone of the coverage and conversation around opioid users actually translated into more humane public policy? Not quite.  

Over the past few years, many states have passed legislation that either requires law enforcement to carry overdose-reversing drugs, such as Narcan, or increases access to these types of drugs with the hope that the number of overdoses will decrease. Yet there are no examples of states decreasing penalties for possession of heroin. And while it appears that law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges are at least talking about being able to use more discretion when handling heroin cases, few statistics are available to see if this talk has translated into action. 

Plus—as with every victim-centered narrative—someone or something has to be blamed. In the case of heroin, the perpetrators have become both the dealer and the drug itself. 

It seems natural that this has begun to happen. When people hear that epidemics, tsunamis, and apocalypses are sweeping through their communities and preying upon community members, it makes sense that they want to blame someone and to "get tough." Indeed, that's been the typical response to past perceived drug epidemics, from crack to club drugs. Now we're beginning to see the same sort of reactionary, tough-on-crime response when it comes to the sale of heroin, although perhaps even more severe than in decades past.

Specifically, we're starting to see states enact tougher penalties for heroin dealers and "traffickers." For example, in 2014, Louisiana enacted a law that requires a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for individuals convicted of selling any amount of heroin. Recently, the inflammatory Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, called for the state to bring back the guillotine for drug traffickers.

In many more states, prosecutors are routinely charging individuals who sell heroin to someone who later overdoses and dies with murder, manslaughter, and homicide, though these statutes were rarely used in this way before this heroin "epidemic" started. And other states, such as New Hampshire, Delaware, and New York, are considering legislation that allows murder or homicide charges for these crimes.

Already we're seeing repercussions from these changes. News stories are popping up at least weekly about individuals who have been convicted of murder, manslaughter, and other violent offenses for selling heroin to individuals who overdosed and died. Here are some examples from the past two weeks alone: 

  • In Louisiana, the boyfriend of a woman who died from a heroin overdose was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. 
  • In Wisconsin, a man was convicted of first-degree reckless homicide for selling heroin to a woman who gave some to a man who overdosed and died in 2014. 
  • In Ohio, a 20-year-old man plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison for selling heroin to a woman who overdosed and died. 
  • In Tennessee, a 26-year-old man plead guilty to attempted second-degree murder for the heroin overdose death of his girlfriend.

Even more startling, a California doctor was just convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison in connection with the prescription pill overdose deaths of three of her patients. This is the first example in the United States of a doctor being convicted of murder for prescribing medication that patients subsequently fatally overdosed on, and it sets a dangerous precedent.

As these examples show, the narrative surrounding victims may lead to leniency from law enforcement and judges for users, but tough-on-crime policies are still in full swing when it comes to other heroin offenses. And while we wait for media and politicians to sober up, the results of these policies will prove just as unjust as those from previous moral panic related to the war on drugs.

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  1. And while we wait for media and politicians to sober up

    We will be waiting forever.

  2. as with every victim-centered narrative?someone or something has to be blamed

    Very true. America, wooooooo!

  3. In Tennessee, a 26-year-old man plead guilty to attempted second-degree murder for the heroin overdose death of his girlfriend.

    I would ask conservative pro gun rights drug warriors the following question; if this is proper then why isn’t it also proper to prosecute someone who sells a gun that is later used to commit suicide also proper?

    I know “but drugs are different”. Sorry but that doesn’t really feed the bulldog in my opinion.

    1. Americans loves them some demagoguery.

    2. Similarly, why shouldn’t police, with more training than the average person face more consequencws for negligent or unnecessary use of force?

      1. Why do you hate our Heroes in Blue??

  4. I remember attending a luncheon concerning the “new heroin epidemic.” The speakers were recovering heroin addicts. At least half of them began using heroin when their doctors refused to renew their pain medication prescriptions. They turned to heroin to replace the prescription painkillers they could no longer receive.

    I wonder how many of the doctors were concerned that renewing the prescriptions would cause them to be prosecuted for enabling “prescription drug abuse,” the moral panic that immediately preceded our current moral panic over heroin.

    The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

    1. Yes.

      CNN (yeah, I know, why am I reading that?) had a series of concern pieces about how heroin use is on the rise because of the government crackdown on opioid medication. The part that they kept leaving out was that they were incessant cheerleaders for that crackdown in the form of “Vicodin is the new heroin!!!!1!!1” pants-wetting stories several years ago.

      We have always been at war with Eastasia, I mean, drugs.

      1. So the junkies end up overdosing because of the Mexican shoe scrapings they are now putting into their veins and people who are in serious and chronic pain are left to suffer because their doctors are afraid of the DEA. Meanwhile the Mexican drug gangs and the DEA prosper. If the DEA and the drug gangs don’t exchange Christmas cards, they should.

        1. Exactly correct. Baptists and bootleggers something something.

          And it puts physicians in a huge bind. You want to write for effective pain medication, but you don’t want the state medical board (or, God forbid, the DEA) deciding to go over your records with a microscope.

          1. Yes, I was going to bring up this topic. It’s insanity. Doctors are being threatened with prison because end-of-life patients might become addicted to pain killers. The fact that these people are dying, and doing so in needles pain, doesn’t outweigh the moral panic of people who just can’t seem to mind their own damn business.

            1. And with doctors, you don’t have to do much threatening before it has a massive chilling effect. Any threat to your license is basically a threat of poverty.

  5. Historically, marijuana prohibition, as it came in phases, was associated with moral panics about Jazz Age concerns–white women dancing to black music, oh my!–to the moral panics of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’80s. Kids are smoking marijuana cigarettes while listening to backward masking and playing D&D!

    Banning opium dens in the late 19th century went hand in hand with things like the Chinese Exclusion Act. When white people started going to opium dens, that really got things started.

    The war against crack, likewise, was supposed to be about targeting the black community specifically in the public imagination.

    But in all of these cases, the moral panics happened when these narcotics started floating into the white, middle classes. The heroin epidemic of the 1950s actually reached its peak in 1949–it was about white GIs coming back from the war with heroin problems.

    1. “Where da white Wimmins at?”

      1. White women are an unstoppable force in history.

        Once white women started shaking their tail-feathers to black music, it inflamed fear and hatred against blacks, but it also meant that Jim Crow’s days were numbered. For the next generation, if segregation meant that white women couldn’t shake their tail-feathers, then to hell with segregation.

        White women sell cars and beer. They’re that powerful.

        The greatest engineering and computer science minds of our generation invented, financed, and built the internet–because people wanted to see white women from the safety of their own homes.

        For a lot of people, the biggest knock against Muslim terrorists is that they want to come here and cover our white women with burkas. This must be stopped!

        White women and the desire to protect them is an unstoppable force. You can get off the hook for killing someone if you can convince a jury that you did it to protect a white woman.

        Every day, hundreds of millions of Americans go to work, study in school, shave, make payments on McMansions, imported cars, and do all sorts of other crazy and unreasonable things–in the hope of appealing to white women.

        White women are an unstoppable force, and so are some of the Latinas, too.

  6. I don’t see that being white has ever shielded users from getting sucked into the crusade as victims before. Affecting the white community has always been a necessary component to getting a new crusade started. If anything, whites are demonized for being a risk to the innocents. Lions and tigers and beatniks, oh my!

    There’s a weird thing that happens in middle class parents’ heads, where they’re both afraid that their children will get on drugs and, at the same time, convinced that the crusade they launch won’t hurt their own kids. I guess it’s a cognitive bias, where people know there are drug users and sellers in their middle class community, but they think launching a government crusade against it won’t do bad things to their own children–because their own children are good kids with warm hearts that care about puppies and kittens.

    1. It’s about the scary “other.”

      When the other is a member of a different race, that’s easy. When the other starts looking like you, things get scary.

  7. Is Raphael Mechoulam white?

  8. Yes and also most of these deaths aren’t from “addiction” – they are intentional overdoses and murders. Of course, the media is full of stories of “I just wanted to get high and oops I took too much” but in fact if you go to meetings you find that they will actually admit wanting to overdose and die. John Belushi was probably killed by an intentional overdose from his shady dealer. It’s not easy to overdose on heroin alone, usually another drug/alcohol is involved. In fact they will empty every bottle in the house – more evidence of intentional suicide. Of course, it can be accidental, but criminalization encourages overdose because people will sometimes use their entire stash for fear of ‘riding dirty’.

    1. This is partly true. Family & friends are ashamed of suicides by any means, and want to make it an accident or an act caused by someone else. But they’re not usually motivated to make a murder into an accident. I’ve had 3 relatives die under circumstances where it could theoretically have been an accidental overdose of either therapeutic or recreational drugs, but was surely suicide in 1 case & likely in the other 2. A 4th relative made it clear it was suicide, but the family would like to blame her ex-husband.

      1. I should’ve added that the 4th case was by bleeding, after a previous attempt. And the most obvious suicide of the other cases was a good death, a cancer patient who ended it with a DPH (phenytoin) OD.

      2. This is partly true.

  9. I did find this to be good news


    1. Yes. It has always been truly sick that naloxone, a drug with absolutely no (negative, really) abuse potential is not easily available. Of course, I wonder if you get put on (another) list if you buy it.

  10. But has the new, empathetic tone of the coverage and conversation around opioid users actually translated into more humane public policy?

    I would have to guess just the opposite. Punishing people in the name of stopping drugs only sells so many tickets – if you claim to be doing it forthechildren the sky’s the limit when it comes to oppressing people for their own good. I wouldn’t bet for a minute this new drug awareness has as much to do with some racist or classist “now that it’s affecting middle-class white kids it needs to be treated palliatively rather than punitively” as a simple opportunistic “now that it’s affecting middle-class white kids we can afford to treat it palliatively rather than punitively”, i.e. “we can get a shit-load more money out of the rubes this way”.

  11. I remember during the New Hampshire debates one of the mods started a question with the “fact” that in New Hampshire, drug overdose is the second leading cause of death. I had to look that up to see where the hell he was getting that from – turns out the governor of New Hampshire made that claim. But that’s how ridiculous this crap is – some (arguably) reasonably intelligent person could make the claim that drug overdose is the second leading cause of death in New Hampshire and nobody bats an eye or thinks to ask what happened to heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and chronic respiratory disease. (According to the CDC, the actual #2 cause of death in New Hampshire is cancer, which killed approximately 10 times as many people as drug overdose, so drug overdose better get on the stick if it wants to be a real competitor.)

    1. But it’s kind of cheating to lump all neoplastic diseases as “cancer”. Why not classify them according to the organ they’re cancers of?

  12. The addition to the centralized socialist state is far worse than heroin.

  13. Addiction is not caused by drugs. It is caused by pain. PTSD mostly.

    People in chronic pain chronically take pain relievers

    1. Meh, I’ve got an addictive personality, which is one reason I’ve never stuck a needle in my arm. Sure, I’ve got pain, but I was using drugs and drinking when I was going and didn’t have the, what? spiritual pain? that I’ve got now.
      Drugs can be addictive.

    2. But chronic pain rx (appropriate medical dependence) is not what most people mean by “addiction”.

  14. In all seriousness, this is a consequence of letting women vote. They were the driving force behind prohibition of alcohol and every other substance since.

    (Not saying that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, but simply that it’s a consequence. Along with socialism)

  15. As this author points out, in the 1980’s our country was plagued with crack and it had a devastating impact on African American communities. The cry was to increase prison populations & give harsher sentences. Mass incarceration became the name of the game. It is essential that we re-examine many of the extreme sentences given during the mass incarceration craze. Let me share one of the worst cases… Lenny Singleton

    Lenny committed 8 “grab & dash” robberies in a 7 day period while high on alcohol & crack. He did not murder anyone or even physically injure anyone. Not one person filed against him as a “victim”. He stole a total of less than $550 & these were his 1st felonies. He earned a college degree & served in our Navy before he allowed his addiction to destroy his life.

    Lenny received 2 Life Sentences + 100 yrs. The judge, without any explanation to Lenny, gave him more time than rapists, child molesters, & murderers.

    Lenny works in a position of authority, lives in the Honor’s Dorm, takes every class available to him for self-improvement, and has co-authored a book called, “Love Conquers All.” During the entire 20+ years he has been in prison, he has not received a single infraction for anything – rare for lifers.

    Taxpayers will pay well over a million dollars to keep Lenny behind bars for the rest of his life – for stealing less than $550 in crimes where no one was physically injured? Please sign Lenny’s petition at http://www.justice4lenny.org.

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