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By Contributor | Nate Morris
Senator Lankford stood in the historic Big 10 Ballroom in Tulsa and gestured toward a PowerPoint presentation projected onto the wall beside him.
“Look at the map,” he said emphatically, “Look at it! Watch it light up!”
Dark red colors populated across the map of the United States, with the outline of Oklahoma clearly visible in dark maroon.
These maps, said the senator, illustrated the severity of the “Opioid Crisis,” especially in the state of Oklahoma. Detailed in his word choice, the senator referred to the growing number of deaths from the opioid overdoses as a “national tragedy.”
Combating this epidemic would be one of the senator’s highest priorities in the coming year, as he stressed the importance of the community coming together to support opioid addicts and end this terrible plague.
The senator is correct; this is a national tragedy. In 2015, opioid overdoses took the lives of more than 32,000 Americans – a death toll eleven times greater than the 9/11 attacks.
The figures are staggering. The need is great. And the cause is good.
However, even as the senator outlined his noble ambition to halt this tragedy, a stark reality began to become abundantly clear.
As communities of color, and thereby the nation as a whole, continue to suffer from the devastating effects of the “War on Drugs”, President Donald Trump spoke to reporters from outside his golf club in New Jersey to declare the opioid epidemic a “national emergency” (though he would later officially refer to it as a “public health emergency”, diminishing the requirement for federal intervention), the “likes of which we have never seen”.
For the first time in the nation’s history, drug addiction has been deemed by the White House as an emergency rather than a crime. Given the “law and order” mantra upon which this president rode into office, it may seem strange that his stance on the enforcement of drug crime laws has softened and that his comments are an indication that the “War on Drugs” is winding down. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
The opioid epidemic, which Senator Lankford is working to lead the charge against, is highly selective in its victims. Four out of every five Americans who die from an overdose of opiates are white. And though illegally purchasing, selling, and being under the influence of opiates is, in technicality, no less a crime than use or possession of crack or marijuana, it is deemed a crisis because of the demographic it overwhelmingly effects.
In fact, during the same term in which Senator Lankford took on this charge, he introduced legislation which would place additional legal burdens on Native Americans arrested for marijuana-related charges on federal lands, he also introduced legislation which would allow for the deportation of minors who were found to be in possession of marijuana on or near a school zone, and he voted to confirm one of the staunchest supporters of the “War on Drugs” as Attorney General of the United States.
These and numerous other petty drug laws, which disproportionately affect communities of color, have perpetuated a far larger, far more sinister, far more destructive epidemic in this nation than the opiate epidemic ever could: the epidemic of mass incarceration.
Currently, nearly 2.3 million Americans are sitting behind bars, with an additional 4.7 million on probation or parole. Of the millions incarcerated, nearly 500,000 are imprisoned on drug-related charges, and while Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. Population, they account for 40% of its prison population. These numbers and the disparity between them escalated drastically following the implementation of tougher drug laws in the Nixon, Regan, and Clinton eras.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), black Americans are nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white Americans, even though there is no variance in the use of the drug between the two communities. In states like Oklahoma, even a charge of simple possession can result in up to a year in prison.
In order to crack down on the drug responsible for the deaths of an average zero people every year, funding was made available to implement stop and frisk programs in low-income communities, laws increased penalties for anyone in possession of marijuana within 2,000 feet of a school or church, and police officers were placed in predominantly black and Latinx schools with imposed duties that extended beyond the intent of protecting and serving – often requiring the arrest of students for drug-related offenses within schools themselves.
Hundreds of thousands of lives and families and futures are disrupted or destroyed each and every year in this country by racially motivated drug laws. These numbers dwarf the deaths of Americans from opiates, but these issues are not seen as two sides of the same coin, nor have they ever been.
During the crack epidemic of the 1980s, as thousands of people of color were dying from the drug each year, federal and state governments were quick to paint with a broad brush of criminality across those communities; never once calling it a tragedy or an emergency requiring compassionate intervention. In fact, sentencing guidelines still in effect today required prison terms for possession of crack (a drug primarily affecting black communities) to be ten times higher than for powder cocaine (primarily used by the white communities).
Then and now the social and legal condemnation of drug use has fallen squarely on the shoulders of communities of color.
Only when the hands holding the drugs are white is it considered a crisis in need of intervention.
When the skin on those hands contains melanin, it becomes a crime.
The rash of deaths of our fellow citizens from opioid overdoses is an undeniable tragedy, requiring our attention and our action.
Just as tragic is the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are forcibly separated from their lives every year for an indeterminate length of time because they had a non-lethal substance in their pocket.
Equally distressing still is the reality that funding provided for marijuana-related arrest and incarceration efforts totals more than $3.2 billion a year; an amount so large that it could instead be used to provide every single high-school graduate in this country with a $1,000 scholarship the moment they cross the stage each and every Spring.
Both of these tragic realities are not the fault of some distant, foreign entity; they are our own making, and they are inextricably linked to one another.
To vigorously address the opioid addiction without seeking true reform to the ignorant and racially-motivated drug laws which plague this country would be to willfully perpetuate one of the most pervasive systems of oppression in the modern world.
However, systems of oppression was created by people, and they can be dismantled by people.
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Nate Morris is a contributor to the Black Wall Street Times. Nate was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area and moved to Tulsa in 2012 after graduating from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. He received his Master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2015. Nate is a Teach for America alumnus and has worked in schools throughout the Tulsa area. He is an advocate for educational equity as well as racial and social justice throughout Tulsa and the nation as a whole.