Addiction is an interesting phenomenon to look at, because it reveals stark differences in the way a society treats its vulnerable, depending on what type of class or race they belong to.
We can say that someone with any kind of addiction is vulnerable in a way, due to the nature of addiction. Addiction is commonly understood as some sort of unproductive – or even counterproductive – behavior that an individual is unable to stop engaging in with their own will power. So addicts are vulnerable: they can’t stop what they are doing, so society has to come up with a way of helping them – or punishing them, depending on your stance.
But addictive behaviors crop up in many different ways, and they turn up across race and class lines. It is not surprising then when we start to see that not all addictions are treated the same.
What should we do with addicts? How do we treat addiction? Do we help people? Do we punish them? These are interesting questions, but for now, we are going to focus on the way that this society treats different kinds of addicts differently.
To start, let’s look at the ways we treat alcoholics. People who are addicted to alcohol are offered all sorts of support, which is a good thing. Granted, alcoholism carries certain stigmas with it, but all in all we have institutions and services that offer treatment if people need it. It helps that alcohol is legal and considered legitimate by our society. People across race and class lines use and abuse it. Of course more serious problems of alcoholism crop up in poor communities of color due to the social problems associated with poverty, neglect, abuse by the ruling class, and etc, and the addition of a loss of social and institutional support to address these problems. Poor communities of color don’t have access to the quality of care that rich white communities do.
We start seeing even greater differences when we compare prescription drugs to currently illegal drugs. We have all sorts of opioids that are far more dangerous than even heroin and meth, yet they are perfectly legal and even encouraged by the medical establishment, as they are manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry at great profit. Many have died under the sway of medical grade opioids in recent years, yet the pharmaceutical companies continue to peddle their products without so much as a slap on the hand with a fine. The opioid addicts themselves are lamented as unfortunate people who need medical help, which is a very different reaction than that of the drug addiction scares of the 1980s and 1990s.
It isn’t hard to see why this is. Opioid users are predominantly white and have better access to various health care services. Their doctors are more willing to give them prescriptions, while at the same time they remain suspicious about giving prescriptions to people of color. Further, more white families are now experiencing the ravages of the heroin epidemic, which is changing lawmakers’ attitudes to drug addiction and treatment.
Compare this to our society’s reactions to drug addiction in the 80s and 90s. Cocaine addictions drew concern for their rich white users, but the cheaper crack-cocaine swept through communities of color, and users and sellers of this substance were viciously prosecuted by the law. We built out the full power of our police state in the midst of moral panic by the affluent classes, concerned that violent “superpredator” drug addicts and dealers were proliferating in communities of color.
Even today, more white people than ever are addicted to various drugs – legal and illegal – across class lines, yet people of color are prosecuted at a far greater rate and fill our prisons for non-violent drug offences. White addicts on the other hand are treated as medical cases deserving of community support. A good direction for drug policy no doubt, but one that isn’t evenly applied. Instead people of color get police violence, civil forfeiture, and prison bars.
The real distinctions come when we start looking at addictions that occur among higher classes of people.
What about the addiction to profit? To numbers? In the run up to the 2008 financial crisis, there were white financial professionals that were quietly begging the universe to somehow make them stop what they were doing, and put their trials at an end. They couldn’t stop making bad loans, underwriting bad loans, securitizing bad mortgage loans, and trading bad products, as the money they were making was moving at such a high velocity; the thrill of profit numbers skyrocketing was completely intoxicating. Many finance professionals knew what they were doing was wrong, but they couldn’t make themselves stop.
But they were made all sorts of excuses for by their peers, who were also white and in high social places, such as in powerful corporations and government institutions. The American public was fed the convenient story that the finance professionals were “creating jobs” and making the market more “efficient” through their banking and trading activities. Even after the financial collapse, and the ensuing investigation – which was very thorough – our ruling class was happy to excuse their behavior and bail them out. People’s lives were ruined because of these financial addictions. People became homeless after losing homes in bad loans. People died from suicide, outdoor exposure, health problems, and lack of social support. The effects of financial contagion reached all over the world, devastating lives on a global scale.
Not only were we unable to throw the financial addicts in jail, but the thought of these people losing too much money was unbearable for our ruling class. They were made completely whole again financially. To repeat the process again.
That was bad enough. But we also know that the developed nations – many of them predominantly rich white nations – are addicted to oil. Yes, this is really a thing. We know that burning oil deposits carbon in the atmosphere, which is slowly roasting all of us, and terrorizing us with more severe storms and rising oceans. Many of the nations that are suffering the most under climate change are developing nations that are composed of people of color.
But somehow our ruling class can’t really care too much about that. We hunt heroin dealers down and throw them in prison or kill them. We’ve declared an entire war on drugs in general in fact. But the drug dealers’ networks of addiction – and suffering – are far smaller than the networks of suffering that the oil addiction creates. This is an addiction that has the potential to destroy hundreds of millions, maybe even billions, of lives. And yet we do nothing to the merchants and the manufacturers of petroleum products. Hell, we let them wander the media organs and lie to us that no such addiction exists. And then we reward them with millions and even billions in profits. To top it all off, we now have a president that denies the problem exists entirely.
Addictive behaviors can still be pretty destructive, and we need to talk about how we are going to address them, but as a society we are not doing a very good job. We know that hypocrisy never really solves anything. If I say, “hey I’m going to drop my heroin addiction, but now I’m going to rely on oxycontin because it is legal,” you are still going to think that I have a problem. So why do we let all sorts of destructive addictive behaviors rage in the white upper classes, and then punish the addictive behaviors in the lower classes and communities of color with the full force of the law? Do we actually think that anything will be solved this way?
The answer of course is that we have no interest in solving any of this. Privilege for the powerful, no matter the cost, and powerlessness and suffering for the most vulnerable is the order of the day. The future of humanity depends on this being changed.