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.”

  • Kassie

    I noticed in the past few weeks that CVS is now carrying an over the counter drug to treat heroin overdose. I assume this is also at least partially in response to the climb in whites using the drug. Where was the push to have this drug widely available without a prescription when it was primarily people of color dying?

    • Narcon? I think there’s also a push for cops and EMTs to start carrying that too. Was mentioned in the 60 Minutes IIRC

  • Mike Worcester

    Are we going to see a return to methadone clinics, like in the early 70s?

    • Kassie

      They never left and many exist today.

  • Anna

    One person in the ’60 Minutes” story made a statement that was very telling—-instant gratification.

    “Instant messaging,” “texting,” “Instagram,” “Facebook,” etc. are all forms of instant gratification. Our technological age is very much like the “Big Brother” of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”

    The pressure on young adults to “conform” has never been greater in the history of humankind. We pressure children to be at the top of the class and when they can’t live up to parental expectations they turn to the next best thing to parental approval—peer approval.

    IMHO, I think what is lacking is simple family rituals—eating supper together every night, attending church services every Sunday, regular family vacations even if just for an extended weekend.

    For every young person who has a heroin addiction there are probably 10 times that number who don’t have a drug problem Are there suddenly thousands of families who have the “addiction ” gene suddenly pop up in the most recent generation? The “addiction” gene can account for some but not all of these drug addiction cases.

    Children have to know where the fence is. Parents have to let their children fail on occasion so they know the thrill of overcoming adversity, the “natural” high of a job well done. If they never struggle, they can’t possibly know the thrill of victory.

    The high of heroin is the 21st century substitution for the thrill of victory. Unfortunately for far too many young adults, it is a deadly one.

    • Kassie


      Heroin isn’t the drug of choice for 15 year olds. It is the drug of choice of 30 year olds. Basically the problem is over prescription of pain killers and bot providing pain patients with what they need to get off pain pills after surgery or injury. They then seek other pain pills, which is very expensive. Heroin does the same thing, but is very cheap.

      But blame Millenials for another thing if that’s easier for you.

  • John

    As is so often the case, it’s too bad it’s taken a bunch of middle class white folk getting hooked (or killed, or whatever – pick your “epidemic” from the last 100 years) to get some attention on something that’s been a problem in less affluent cultural groups for a long time.

    That being said, I’m really glad that someone is finally able to do something about a problem that’s plagued a lot of people for a long time. It’s sad that it’s taken so long, but finally something can be done (I hope). I don’t travel very often for work, but the last time I was in a hotel room watching TV with my typical travel induced insomnia, I saw an episode of some docu-drama (may have been an actual documentary, I don’t recall) series on cable that was documenting heroin use in America and the people who were/are trying to do something about it. It was shocking, to say the least, and left me worried (as was intended), and with no idea of what to do (I live in a working/middle class suburb of Minneapolis, where as far as I know this isn’t a big problem . . . yet.)

    One thing that has stuck with me from the show was how some addicts actually argue and fight with the person who is trying to give them the OD drug, while they were overdosing. They were so committed to their heroin that they preferred likely death over a life-saving injection that would kill the high. That’s a frightening commitment to their addiction, to say the least.

    The big question for me as a parent, is how do I keep my kids (and secondarily – other people’s kids) from this stuff? If it’s as prevalent and available as TV would have me believe, it’s going to be a challenge. And a challenge that I have to meet and succeed at. Don’t say move out of the suburbs either. I used to live an hour out of any major city, and had friends on the police force. They were well aware of the places you could get meth or heroin, depending on your drug of choice. They were also doing everything they could to deal with the problem, but it’s no simple job, even in a small town with a commitment to supporting the police force.

    • This is overly simplistic, but raise your kids to be happy and well-adjusted and they’ll be less tempted to turn to drugs.

      • John

        I think not so much overly simplistic as just plain wrong. My understanding is that most of the suburban addicts got there less through recreational use and more through pain killers that they became dependent on. (I can’t speak to other areas).

        A good friend of mine broke his femur. During the month+ he spent on his back, healing, he was taking opiate based pain killers, as he should have.

        Eventually, he was tempted (drawn) to take them, more or less to kill time when he hurt less, but had little to do and still couldn’t get out of bed.

        He recognized what was happening, and has his wife put the pills in another room. He dodged it, but I think a lot of people don’t recognize when they are sliding toward that point, and that causes problems, regardless of age.

        • That’s the part of the 60 Minutes piece that needed more attention, the incredible increase in painkiller prescriptions. One of the mothers of a victim is a nurse and alluded to having signed on to “this ‘the pain must be treated'” philosophy, which she hinted was a departure from a previous health philosophy. I’d like to hear more about that.

        • I think you make a very valid point about pain killers, but I was thinking more specifically about why kids are tempted to turn to drugs, not adults. I think kids are more likely to turn to drugs for dealing with/escaping from emotional pain rather than developing a dependence due to physical pain.

  • annebeth66

    I was a social worker in WV back in the 90’s with the Crack Epidemic, which was mostly Black and no one cared how many people died. Everyone from the user, to the dealer was treated the same: as a worthless criminal. Now that it’s heroin and Whites that are dying, it is odd, even humorous to see how race & class even intersect drug use. No one is tossing around the word “junkie” for they are now using the more respectable “addict.” No one is suggesting that these users be locked up with the dealers, why they want treatment for these people, so that they can get “better and have productive lives.” As a Black woman, this all sounds really hollow, false and self-serving. The White man that 20 years ago wanted mandatory sentencing for drug offenders, feels different about it, now that it is his son or daughter that is strung out. Well Black people had sons and daughters too that were suffering from addiction but there was ZERO compassion out there for them. So I’ll just sit back and watch the Heroin Floor Show and all the hand wringing by people that years ago, didn’t give a damn.