Opioid crisis through lens of class and race

Northampton is the focus for a revealing MassLive article on hidden heroin addiction in Western Massachusetts:  “All races, ethnic groups, ages, and income levels” have been affected, the report found.

Heroin and opioid addiction have shattered the middle and upper classes in the Bay State.

Nancy Girard, the mother of a heroin user profiled in the story, told reporter Laura Newberry, “I can easily think of 15 affluent families affected by heroin here — kids of business owners, cops, lawyers, doctors, anesthesiologists. If you have enough money and enough stuff, you can pass.”

Class plays an important role in the new attitudes towards addiction. So does race.

There has been a tectonic shift in attitudes toward addiction since the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s struck black communities. When the Bay State Banner looked at race and the opioid crisis, reporter Yawu Miller noted that a list of the top 30 Bay State communities (originally compiled by WCVB-TV Boston) that suffered the highest number of opioid deaths did not include cities with majority-minority populations such as Lawrence, which shocked some people.

“The shift has been to the suburbs, and people have more interest now,” said Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins during a segment on WGBH’s Basic Black. “They have more concern, you get more phone calls, whereas before it was a city issue.”

A 2006 American Civil Liberties Union report linked the shift in attitudes to the death of Len Bias, a promising young University of Maryland basketball star recruited by the Boston Celtics who died of a drug overdose in 1986. “His death sparked a national media frenzy largely focused on the drug that was suspected, mistakenly, of killing him – crack cocaine,” the ACLU said.

That frenzy fueled the heavy handed federal response- prioritizing incarceration over treatment-which came down hardest on African-American communities and their low-level dealers and users, a push that Massachusetts embraced.

The current opioid crisis has sparked the opposite reaction. The rush to embrace treatment strategies has been launched in response to a phenomenon occurring in predominately white rural towns and suburbs.

A recent New York Times article about heroin use in New Hampshire noted, “When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different.”

As drug addiction has taken hold of the white middle class, parents reeling from their own personal tragedies have seized the initiative. “They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation,” Michael Botticelli, the head of White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the Times.

African-American pundits, among others, have been outraged by this new paradigm. In her searing critique, “‘Gentler War on Drugs’ is a ‘Smack’ in the Face of Black America,” Kirsten West Savali, a senior writer for The Root, concluded, “Police officers and politicians are simply making it clear that the war on drugs was never supposed to include white America.”

That shift is not coincidental, according to Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, which studies criminal justice and racial disparities and advocates for reform. “The response to the rise in heroin use follows patterns we’ve seen over decades of drug scares,” Mauer told The Atlantic. “When the perception of the user population is primarily people of color, then the response is to demonize and punish. When it’s white, then we search for answers.”

–GABRIELLE GURLEY

 

BEACON HILL

The House passes a solar bill that pares back the cost of a key incentive. A Senate leader says he will try to win passage of a compromise measure in just one day before the Legislature recesses for the holidays. (CommonWealth)

The House is set to vote on a revamped public records bill that allows requesters to recoup legal costs if they have to sue to get documents but does nothing to expand the scope of one of the country’s weakest public laws and could even lengthen the time to get records. (CommonWealth) Here’s the story from the Globe‘s Todd Wallack, who has been hammering away at the public records law.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo comes out in support of a transgender anti-discrimination bill. (State House News)

Gov. Charlie Baker and US Rep. Seth Moulton spar over accepting Syrian refugees. (State House News) An Eagle-Tribune editorial leans toward the Baker point of view, as does the Herald‘s Joe Battenfeld. An Item editorial sides more with Moulton. Eileen McNamara assails Baker’s “wrong-headed reasoning.” (WBUR) Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone also weighs in, saying governors must do right by the refugees. (CommonWealth)

Baker unveils a series of policy changes at the Department of Children and Families. (WBUR)

The Senate is preparing to vote on a measure that would restrict social media surveillance by schools and companies. (Salem News)

Globe columnist Tom Farragher revisits a drawn-out spat over proposed veterans housing in Brighton that is being held up by Secretary of State Bill Galvin, a resident of the neighborhood who is using his authority as head of the state historical commission to block the project.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Standard & Poor’s upgrades the credit rating of Lawrence from A- to A. (Eagle-Tribune)

Veteran Quincy City Clerk Joseph Shea, who has served under four mayors, announces he will retire next year. (Patriot Ledger)

Easton residents packed a Special Town Meeting and overwhelmingly approved a proposal to conduct an audit on the town’s finances as selectmen, three of whom opposed the audit, push for an override. (The Enterprise)

Swansea selectmen voted to accept a recommendation from town assessors to shift more of the tax burden onto residential property owners. (Herald News)

CASINOS/GAMBLING

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman files suit against FanDuel and DraftKings and asked for a preliminary injunction barring the sites from accepting participants in New York. (Boston Globe) Notwithstanding Gov. Charlie Baker‘s comments to the contrary, Senate President Stan Rosenberg doesn’t see how you can’t call the sports fantasy sites gambling operations. (Boston Herald)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The hacking group Anonymous has declared its own war on ISIS, promising to shut down the terrorist group’s technology capabilities and expose information they find to help track down and identify ISIS supporters. (National Review)

In the wake of the Paris attacks, are American sports stadiums safe from similar terrorist actions? (American Spectator)

Congress is struggling over the best way to curb drunk driving fatalities — ignition interlocks or 24/7 sobriety programs? (Governing)

ELECTIONS

A new WBUR poll shows Donald Trump solidifying his lead in New Hampshire. By the way, the Donald is coming to the DCU Center in Worcester on Wednesday. Here’s T&G columnist Dianne Williamson’s take. Howie Carr to Trump: So enough about me, what do you think of me?

GOP presidential candidate John Kasich proposes an agency to promote Judeo-Christian values around the world to counter ISIS. (Time)

Bobby Jindal, we hardly knew ye. (New York Times)

RELIGION

Churches in the Fall River Diocese will have to pay an 8 percent to 14 percent assessment of their income to the diocesan central administration to help with declining revenues because of falling attendance and rising costs. (Standard-Times)

EDUCATION

As expected, the state education board approves a new standardized test that is a hybrid of the existing MCAS and upstart PARCC tests. (State House News)

The president of the Boston Teachers Union charges that charter schools are violating state ethics laws by using school facilities and supplies to promote an effort to raise the charter school cap in the Legislature, but it’s not clear that the schools’ activities are out of bounds. (Boston Globe)

The Herald‘s Jessica Heslam looks at the turnaround success story of the McKay School in East Boston.

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

The US smoking rate declines to a record low. (Time)

More than a third of women who undergo mammograms say they have had the test before the age of 40, contrary to guidelines set by most medical associations that suggest 40 is the earliest to begin the routine. (U.S. News & World Report)

TRANSPORTATION 

The Steamship Authority gives final approval for a fast ferry between New Bedford and Nantucket beginning in the spring, the first ferry connection between the historic whaling rivals in decades. (Standard-Times)

Massport wants to add 5,000 parking spaces at Logan Airport and build a covered walkway to the airport’s Blue Line MBTA station. (Boston Globe)

Uber advisor Ed Davis hails the benefits of ride-sharing companies. (CommonWealth)

Winter is coming and CommonWealth’s Gabrielle Gurley talks about whether MBTA can do better in response. (WGBH)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Cape Wind’s Jim Gordon explains why the project is not dead yet, despite all indications it’s at least on life support. (Greater Boston)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The murder trial of Philip Chism is put on hold after the defendant refuses to come out of his cell to appear in court. (Salem News)

SPORTS 

A big blast from Big Papi: Going, going, (soon to be) gone.