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White lines: changing attitudes toward addiction

Support for addiction services has grown in recent years as opiates have penetrated the 'burbs

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
White lines: changing attitudes toward addiction
Surrounded by legislators, Gov. Deval Patrick signs S 2142, An Act to Increase Opportunities for Long-Term Substance Abuse Recovery. (Governor's Office photo by Eric Haynes) (Photo: Eric Haynes)

When Gov. Deval Patrick signed the new substance abuse treatment bill last week, it marked the end of a 14-year, racially-charged effort to devote resources to a long-standing problem in Massachusetts. As testament to the consensus on this bill, lawmakers from Nantucket to Worcester County joined the governor for the signing.

The broad-based political consensus of last week stands in stark contrast to the year 2000, when a lock-em-up attitude toward addicts led to the defeat of ballot Question 8, which would have funded drug treatment with cash and property seized from convicted drug dealers. The so-called “treatment on demand” measure would also have given judges the option of committing individuals charged with drug crimes to treatment rather than jail time.

Speaking back in 2000 on behalf of a coalition of opposing district attorneys and law enforcement officials, then-Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley argued the proposed law would “cripple the ability of the police to investigate narcotics dealing.”

Although voters in Boston’s majority black voting precincts overwhelmingly supported the measure, it was defeated in the statewide vote, with 44 percent of voters in support and 48 percent against (Coincidentally that year, a ballot measure banning voting by incarcerated felons passed with 60 percent of the voters in favor and 34 percent against).

So what might have changed the minds and hearts of the state’s political establishment? For one, the public face of addiction in Massachusetts has become whiter. In the last 14 years, as opiates have become increasingly popular in predominantly white suburbs and gateway cities, news media in Massachusetts have greatly increased their coverage of addiction and overdoses.

During the bill signing last week, state Senate President Therese Murray told reporters she had fielded a call from a constituent whose child had died from an overdose a week earlier. Republicans and Democrats were united in their support for the bill, with all 40 Senators voting in support.

A MassInc poll released earlier this year provided an indication that public opinion in the state has shifted from the bias toward incarceration seen in the votes on the year 2000 ballot measures to a strong bias toward treatment, with 83 percent of respondents saying they favored drug treatment over incarceration.

Yet, as the Banner pointed out in a March 26 editorial, while 90 percent of teen heroin addicts are whites living in suburbs, blacks charged with drug offenses are still 13 times more likely to serve jail time than whites charged with drug offenses.

So, to what extent did the white face of addiction in Massachusetts contribute to increased support for addiction services? A Stanford University research project released earlier this month found that whites were less likely to support criminal justice reform measures when they were shown that existing laws result in disproportionate arrests and incarceration of blacks.

Specifically, researchers sought signatures for ballot measures seeking to overturn California’s draconian three-strikes law and the NYPD’s constitutionally-challenged stop-and-frisk policy. In the New York case, just 12 percent of white subjects who were told that 60 percent of incarcerated New York City residents are black were willing to support the overturn of the city’s stop-and-frisk policy.

Given the persistent influence of bias in criminal justice policy, it’s highly unlikely Massachusetts voters and elected officials would harbor the same positive bias toward treatment for addicts if news media in Massachusetts were still portraying drug addiction as a black problem.

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