Views shift as heroin addiction goes white, suburban

Last night’s 60 Minutes report on heroin was certainly an eye-opener in an area of the country that often feels it’s insulated from many ills: the suburbs.

(Video link)

The heroin epidemic has struck the suburbs and rural parts of America. Historically the scourge of the inner city, heroin is making junkies out of more white people.

And the parents on the program last night — all of them white — said they stepped forward to say that stigma and shame are “compounding the epidemic.”

The racial component of the problem was never brought up in the program, but the New York Times reports that a “gentler” war on heroin is partly due to the whiteness of its new victims.

When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.

And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.

“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered,” said Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, better known as the nation’s drug czar. “They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”

Most everyone seems to welcome the shift, although the Times says black leaders are frustrated that earlier calls for a more forgiving approach to drug addiction would have prevented — as one specialist in racial issues said — “the impact of mass incarceration upon entire communities.”