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For those alive during those times, it is no overstatement to suggest that crack was the biggest news story of the 1980s. And it certainly felt much different than the approach being taken now towards what has been termed the “opioid epidemic.” Back then, as a companion to the hysteric nature of media coverage, a new vocabulary entered the mainstream discourse—terms like "drive-by," "hood," "Crip," and "Blood" mingled with symbolic items such as glass pipes, Uzis, and AK-47s. The numerous social ripple effects from the spread of crack manifested in Los Angeles to produce the sociopolitical foundations for "gangsta" rap music, the seminal group NWA, and their landmark 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton.

In 1986, lawmakers rushed to find an incarceration-based response and came up with the “100 to 1” ratio. This meant that 5 grams of crack would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, the same amount of prison time as 500 grams of powder cocaine. These disproportionate sentences hit communities of color particularly hard, removing large numbers of primarily young black and brown men from the community and placing them in jail for long periods of time. Despite the often openly racial terms that the crack epidemic was presented within media, perhaps most telling was a statistic reported as the 100 to 1 ratio was rolled back to 17 to 1 in 2009—while only 25 percent of crack users are black, African Americans account for 82 percent of convictions for crack possession.

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The concentration of the current wave of opioid abuse centers around white, uneducated men. In March, President Trump held a listening session at the White House, where he signed an executive order creating a presidential commission to combat opioid addiction. “Addiction is a disease, and no life is disposable. We can help people by giving them appropriate treatment,” New Jersey Governor and commission leader Chris Christie said at the time.

Certainly those impacted by these substances, then and now, deserved compassion and respect. The treatment-based approach appears to recognize that the incarceration-based strategy of the 1980s was perhaps not the best way to go.

If that’s so, then it feels to me something like the Tuskegee experiments transposed onto contemporary drug policy—the lives of the guinea pigs sacrificed so that we can get it right the next time around. One epidemic presented as black and urban (the guinea pigs), another as white and rural (the humans). I wonder, 10 years down the road, will there be an opioid “Dark Alliance”-type series of investigative articles? “Highway” Ricky Ross, anyone?

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