Opinion
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The youth heroin epidemic that wasn’t

Why authorities inflate claims about teen heroin use

June 23, 2014 2:30AM ET

On June 13, Gov. Andrew Cuomo convened a press conference to discuss the purported ravages of heroin in New York. Statewide abuse of the drug had reached “epidemic proportions,” Cuomo declared, adding that one-third of all heroin seizures by the Drug Enforcement Administration take place in the New York area, in large part because much of the supply currently flowing through the New York metropolitan area is thought to originate from the Port of Newark in New Jersey.

Young people, Cuomo said, are at particular risk. “This is disproportionately a young person problem now and it’s disproportionately a college age problem, so we are going to attack it in our education system,” he said, adding that the current “epidemic” far eclipses that of previous episodes: heroin in the 1970s, crack cocaine in the 1980s, heroin again in the 1990s. As a corrective measure, the governor announced the assignment of 100 additional investigators to the State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team, nearly doubling the number of troopers serving in that unit and adding to a broad range of counteractive law enforcement initiatives targeting distribution and individual use in the New York area.

Journalists have produced copious “trend” pieces detailing heroin’s alleged rise among young people. Officials cite a spate of recent heroin-involved deaths of celebrities, notably Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cory Monteith, a star of the television series “Glee,” to make a point about teenage susceptibility to cultural messaging surrounding heroin. Thus, in high school auditoriums around the U.S., the existence of a “heroin epidemic” is being asserted as proven fact.

The problem with such claims is that they lack evidence. According to the federal government’s own data, released June 13 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heroin use among U.S. teens actually declined in prevalence from 2011 (2.9 percent) to 2013 (2.2 percent). New York and New Jersey officials cite evidence for an increase in overdose deaths but attribute this largely to unsanctioned use of prescription opiates. And on June 15, the communications director for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Rafael Lemaitre, told me via Twitter that while there was a recent “uptick” in heroin use, it was by no means an epidemic, and that opioids in prescriptions — not street drugs — were the problem. Any public notion of an extant heroin epidemic is “a function of media reporting,” he said, and unsupported by the federal government’s data. The most recent CDC data for opiate use across all ages in the general population cited by the ONDCP dates from 2011; it shows a 45 percent increase in deaths attributed to heroin over the previous year.

What purpose, then, is served by specifically youth-oriented governmental efforts focused on heroin? A recent “multijurisdictional drug task force” in New Jersey suggests that authorities are prioritizing criminal punishment, rather than enacting prudent measures such as genuine public health services that would reduce heroin use. Across three New Jersey counties outside New York City, authorities made at least 325 arrests over an eight-week period, with 47 police departments participating. Spokespeople designated 280 arrestees, overwhelmingly young people in their teens or 20s, as heroin “users” only — meaning they were charged with simple possession, for which a person may face up to five years in prison under New Jersey law. This time, aside from the standard criminal proceedings, officials pre-emptively dispensed nontraditional punishments: suspected “users’” names, drivers’ license photos and places of residence were splashed across the Internet, and in turn widely circulated by local and national media. The Bergen County prosecutor’s office hailed the initiative as a triumphant stride forward in combating the “heroin epidemic” by way of what it termed a “holistic manner.” It was as though these users were purposefully shamed to signal societal disapproval of their substance use.

Moreover, the contrast between penalties meted out to urban and suburban heroin users is stark. Those arrested in suburban (read: white) areas could generally avoid a criminal conviction; those arrested in urban areas, such as Paterson, New Jersey, received no such option. Is the goal here to deliver justice in adherence with long-standing U.S. legal traditions of nondiscriminatory application? Or is it a PR tactic for the state government to rain down moral opprobrium?

Selective punishment

Remedial policies proposed to curb heroin use across the country typically include similar measures to the ones adopted in New York and New Jersey: “enhancing” law enforcement officials’ power to interdict the drug — namely, empowering them to make discretionary arrests and impose punitive criminalization on offenders. But if decades of failed drug prohibition policy serve as any indication, these new initiatives are unlikely to help. A criminalization and punishment apparatus purportedly erected to curb the flow of this drug has been in place for over 40 years, yet today, as officials themselves allege, heroin remains widely available. What reason do we have to believe that an additional round of prohibition and criminalization will have a different effect?

Drumming up public belief in a teenage “epidemic,” logic would dictate, lends greater popular support to these state projects (kids need to be protected!), thus increasing the likelihood that ill-advised measures can be whisked through legislative bodies without much debate. What’s more, the authorities are framing the “epidemic” principally as a moral imperative to be addressed, not as the medical or legal problem it is.  

As is often the case, politically motivated interdiction efforts ultimately bear most heavily on the vulnerable, drug-addled and ill. Those New Jersey residents who had the misfortune of being selected by law enforcement authorities to serve as an “example” are, to the average news consumer, no longer suffering individuals who require medical assistance, but an ignoble emblem of heroin’s foray into largely white, suburban demographics.  

Predator drugs

New York legislators have thus followed New Jersey’s lead and moved to implement a statewide “educational initiative” as part of the package of heroin-related bills passed last week in the New York state Senate. Another bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, states its aim is to stiffen criminal penalties for “predator drug dealers” who stake out clientele at addiction rehabilitation centers. Currently, heroin violations within 1,000 feet of the property lines of these facilities — including parking lots, parks and myriad other facility-owned properties — could be upgraded just as they have been for years under “school zone” enforcement provisions. A package of 11 anti-heroin bills approved by the Legislature last week now awaits Gov. Cuomo’s signature.

Among the few dissenters to the bill was state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, who noted that many of the “same individuals who for years defended the Rockefeller drug laws” — New York’s draconian system of mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug offenses, abolished only in 2009 — are now leading advocates for redoubling criminalization-focused efforts to “fight” heroin. In the Bronx, Rivera pointed out, “a thousand feet is a block — a block that has potentially hundreds of thousands living in it — businesses, train stations.”  

“These laws have been done in the past; the ways that they are carried out have been disproportionate,” he went on, “and ultimately lead to mass incarceration.” The Rockefeller drug laws — driven by strikingly analogous anti-drug animus — saddled a generation of young men of color with criminal records, and were emulated throughout the country.

Despite a decided shift in public opinion away from the prohibitionist dogma of yesteryear, drug prohibition is ratcheting up again across the New York - New Jersey metropolitan area and beyond. Jarring anecdotal accounts of heroin’s harms permeate the media, and whether there's an “epidemic” or not, the impulse to prevent misuse is laudable, as many Americans struggle with drug misuse and addiction. But when doing something about the problem involves further exerting coercive governmental power — however “apolitical” or “bipartisan” these initiatives may be — the result is not only ineffective but also often discriminatory.

Like the drugs they plan to banish, these laws come with their own adverse effects: over-crowding prisons with nonviolent offenders, breaking up families, authorizing overzealous policing tactics, and breeding undue fear.

Michael Tracey is a journalist living in New York

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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