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Excerpted From: Courtney Lauren Anderson, Opioids Are the New Black, 69 DePaul Law Review 55 (Fall, 2019) (345 Footnotes) (Full Document)
The crack epidemic swept through the black community in the United States in the early 1980s. Despite the increasing use of powder cocaine in metropolitan areas and suburbs, the "crackheads" giving birth to "crack babies" were subject to narratives that portrayed black drug users as a threat to others, which was to be contained rather than treated. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created stricter penalties for users. The mandatory minimums disproportionately incarcerated African Americans and adversely impacted a number of urban neighborhoods. The psychology driving the mandate to incarcerate African American, impoverished drug addicts relied on tales of gang warfare, laziness, and child neglect.
the opioid crisis is considered a national emergency, as declared by President Trump in October 2017. The users of these drugs span an economic and racial spectrum, with a particular emphasis in rural communities. For example, one in seven opioid users in Ohio is a construction worker. The employment of crack addicts in the 1980s was not a subject of research, legislation, or news.
This Article examines the importance of stories, particularly those with racial tropes, in the creation and enforcement of drug legislation. The environments in which crack was prevalent are marked by economic distress. Disinvestment and high poverty rates in these low-income, minority neighborhoods are more commonly framed as personal failures by criminals. The story of opioids is centered on a group of people who can be saved through healthcare, treatment, and leniency. If the stories of crack addicts focused on victims of external circumstances rather than villains by individual choice, it is likely that the persistence of poverty in African American neighborhoods would have a different ending.
Part I provides an overview of the opioid crisis, including a timeline, demographics, and a look at the implementation of substance abuse treatment as an antidote.
Part II revisits the crack versus cocaine debate, highlighting their distinctions and sentencing differences through the lens of imagery and storytelling.
The imagery is expanded in Part III where crack, cocaine, and opioid tropes are explored--particularly as they relate to children--for the purpose of illustrating the different perspectives among the three.
Part IV explores the use of narrative in other contexts to show the pervasiveness of racial and ethnic stereotypes on policies and law. Specifically, the use of narratives in the areas of terrorism, immigration, natural disasters, and welfare are described. This Article does not purport to solve the problems of racism.
However, Part V explains that narratives, in the context of this Article, are a manifestation of implicit bias and negative stereotypes inherent in these stories, which can ultimately be tempered by real interactions. This Part concludes by suggesting that experiential learning can be an effective opportunity to address the manipulation of laws by negative narratives.
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Federal Rule of Evidence 404 outlines the prohibition against the government's use of character evidence to portray a defendant as violent. The policy behind the limitation of propensity evidence preservation of the presumption of innocence by avoiding negating this presumption by using evidence of the defendant's violent nature, and Rule 403 which excludes evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the likelihood of prejudice that will result from the exposure of such evidence.
The same danger that exists in a court of law exists in the court of public opinion. Racial bias created an image of black drug users as violent and lazy, false narratives that have been applied to minorities in order to create opposition to policies related to immigration and government cash assistance, and to excuse government indifference in times of natural disasters. The false narrative in the realm of substance abuse is particularly jarring upon examination of the juxtaposition of crack users to opioid users. Misuse of opioids has caused several deaths in Caucasian communities, where crack is portrayed as relegated to the African American community, with sentencing laws constructing a more substantive dividing line between the two. The public portrayal, reaction and resulting laws to opioid abuse has been much more sympathetic than it was during the crack epidemic. Racism will never be outlawed, but training lawmakers to confront implicit and explicit biases by through client interaction can assist with the dissipation of harmful narratives that marginalize minorities.
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