“For too long we’ve viewed drug addiction through the lens of criminal justice,” US president Barack Obama said at an anti-drug abuse summit Atlanta Tuesday. “The most important thing to do is reduce demand. And the only way to do that is to provide treatment—to see it as a public health problem and not a criminal problem.”
The White House has proposed moving away from the decades-long War on Drugs—recently revealed as a cynical ploy by the Nixon administration to target leftists and African-Americans—in favor of increasing access to medical treatment, needle exchanges, and other health-focused measures.
“It was a seen as a character flaw, and ‘not our problem’. But the way we have looked at cigarettes as a public health problem, and traffic fatalities as a public health problem, if you take the same approach here, it can make a difference,” Obama said in Atlanta.
As Quartz has reported, nearly half a million Americans died as a result of drug overdose between 2000 and 2014. Opioids such as heroin, along with prescription painkillers, caused 28,000 deaths in 2014, breaking an all-time record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center found that 67% of Americans think the government should prioritize drug treatment over prosecuting drug crimes.
“Part of what has made it previously difficult to emphasize treatment over the criminal justice system has to do with the fact that the populations affected in the past were viewed as or stereotypically identified as poor, minority,” Obama said.
Today, however, drug addiction is increasingly a problem among white Americans, which is challenging long-held preconceptions. In 2000, the most vulnerable group for heroin deaths was older black men; in 2014 it was overwhelmingly young, white men, who experienced a stunningsix-fold increase in fatalities.
“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered,” Michael Botticelli, the country’s drug czar, told The New York Times last year. “They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”