Let's End Racist Narratives and Policies Around Drug Addiction

By Violet Rush, chapter leader at University of Tulsa College of Law 

The Lawyer, the Addict,” an increasingly popular article from the New York Times highlighting the silence around drug addiction in the legal community, is making the rounds among lawyers and law students. It tells the story of a patent law attorney who suffered from drug addiction and died as a result. In response, the writer asks that law firms become more compassionate and aware of the signs of drug addiction.

Reading this article, I am saddened that drug addiction has taken the life of another human being and robbed family and friends of a loved one. But I am also disconcerted by the article’s narrative. The tone of the article subtly exposes the idea that privileged, white people who struggle with addiction are entitled to resources to overcome addiction, whereas every day, people of color struggling with addiction receive much less compassionate, and often punitive, treatment.

Throughout “The Lawyer, the Addict,” the writer expresses shock that “wealthy, accomplished men and women” are addicted to drugs. Many prominent white people have echoed this sentiment. For instance, Chris Christie conveyed surprise regarding a friend’s addiction by stating that his friend was “incredibly smart,” had a “successful law practice,” and had a happy, healthy family. White people have made it clear that other smart, successful, white people are not expected to suffer from drug addiction. When these expectations for who should and should not be struggling with addiction are set up, they inevitably perpetuate racist, fear-based stereotypes of people of color. Further, those stereotypes are used to inform the vastly different drug policies applied to communities of color as compared to white communities.

Media accounts of the drug epidemics of the 1980s and 1990s expose how social castigation has historically been applied to people of color who struggle with addiction, as compared to white people facing the same issues. Much like today, white people in the 1980s were 45% more likely to sell drugs than black people. Further, white youth in the 1990s used cocaine at a rate 30 times higher than that of black youth and Hispanic youth. Despite the evidence of drug use among white people, the media actively vilified black people* struggling with addiction and often associated drug addiction in communities of color with moral failings. The media also did not categorize black people struggling with addiction as “smart” or “successful” people overcome with job or school-related stress. In addition, government policies targeting black communities were punitive and aimed to increase arrests among black people who bought, sold, or used drugs. This led to the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, many of which resulted in life-without-parole sentences for drug offenders.

Similar to previous drug epidemics, today’s opioid use and addiction is most prevalent in white communities, yet the punitive approach toward people of color who struggle with addiction continues. Many lawmakers identify themselves as champions of the compassionate treatment of opioid drug users. They call for better access to addiction programs and less intervention from law enforcement. Not surprisingly, this benevolence fails to extend to communities of color. Black people are still 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than white people, despite the fact that white people are more likely than black people to sell drugs and equally likely to consume drugs. Further, black people are still more likely to be given longer sentences than white people, even when white people commit the same crime and share the same criminal history.

It might seem harsh to criticize the telling of one man’s story of addition, but the stark contrast between the experiences of white people who suffer from addiction and the the criminalization of black and brown people cannot be ignored. Many white and white-passing people have family members and loved ones who are currently struggling. However, if white and white-passing law students and attorneys do not call out the racism that fuels the creation and application of U.S. drug policies, white supremacy is advanced. So let’s acknowledge that white privilege includes access to drug treatment for white people, and let’s use our privilege as law students and attorneys to support people of color who are also struggling with addiction in receiving the drug treatment and healthcare they have always deserved.


*Links providing evidentiary support regarding the media’s vilification of black people and black communities have not been provided because they are highly triggering. However, the reader may access articles supporting the assertion via the New York Times’s online archives.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How.