Recent local news reports in the Washington, DC metropolitan area have focused on the current heroin epidemic within the suburban and rural areas. Notably, the stretch of highway leading from West Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland is where the greatest focus is directed. In fact, many have dubbed this stretch of highway the “Heroin Highway.” Law enforcement, public health, and other government officials have selected this label, as they allege that it is along this highway that many people often travel to Baltimore to purchase heroin and then return to their homes in the suburban and rural areas of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
It should be noted that the current focus on heroin usage in suburban and rural Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia is not exclusive to those areas. An editorial printed in the New York Times not too long ago also discussed the current increase in heroin usage. The editorial, however, particularly examined the change in the tone of the narrative surrounding heroin usage. Specifically, in the past, when heroin was perceived as a drug of the inner city, heroin dealers and users were often referred to and/or discussed in much harsher tones.Now, heroin users, who have significantly changed demographically, are referred to in gentler tones. Plainly stated, heroin users have become whiter and/or more affluent. In accordance with the gentler tones, the policies and response have also become softer. As an example, Maryland law enforcement officials, and Howard County specifically, are now granting immunity to anyone who calls in a drug overdose.)
As noted in the New York Times editorial, policy makers are attributing the shift in tone to a lesson learned, arguing that the “get tough on drugs” approach employed in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, during which many men of color were disproportionately incarcerated, had little effect. Hence, after the disproportionate and exponential incarceration of men of color that had an indelible impact on many minority households, law enforcement, public health experts, and government officials are now taking a different stance. How convenient…
Even still, as law enforcement, public health experts, and other government officials change their tone towards heroin users, their tone has not exactly changed towards alleged heroin sellers. During a drug prevention summit, an FBI agent openly characterized the Baltimore area, suspected as the origin of the “heroin highway’s” supply, as the “dragon’s lair.” The usage of this term to characterize Baltimore, a predominantly black city that was the site of the Freddy Gray murder and subsequent uprisings, reflects the ongoing racialized dichotomy and hypocrisy in the approach to end drug usage.
While policy makers in Maryland, for instance, contend for a softer approach to dealing with the increasingly white and/or richer heroin users, the largely black city of Baltimore is demonized consequently further perpetuating hegemonic notions of innately criminal inclinations among people and communities of color. Not to mention, the perpetuation of such notions negate the structural and systemic realities that often facilitate, surround, and underlie crime including but not limited to unemployment, redlining, and poorly resourced schools. If we’re going to take a different approach with the new class of drug users, shouldn’t that same new approach be taken with everyone?