The Psychological Impact Of Drug War On Black Communities

This post is gonna be HEAVY, y’all. It would probably be helpful to read my Drug Use: When Is It A Problem post to get a sense of my professional stance on drug use before we get into this. If we aren’t on the same page about things like harm reduction, what makes people use drugs, the different types of relationships to drugs that people have, etc., you might get a little lost.

I’ve spent the last few years of my life working clinically with mainly Black and Latinx people from ages 12 to 80 with histories of drug use and that’s not even counting the years of non-counseling jobs/positions I’ve had where I’ve worked with people from this background. I personally have had to unpack a lot of my own biases, my assumptions, and the myths that society teaches us about drug use and the kinds of people who use drugs. We’ve all been socialized and fooled into believing straight out lies and myths. But now the climate is changing with this recent opioid epidemic. Now, there’s the performance of compassion in the media, in the government, and by some medical professionals. Suddenly everyone is expected to ditch all that socialization and all those lies about “addicts” that we were taught. The script is now publicly changing. It made me reflect on how Black people (and other POCs, but this is about Black people and our communities) were treated while our communities were/are ravaged by chaotic substance use and the messages we internalized because of it. We are blamed for a lack of morals and are punished for “weakness” through drug laws, arrests, prison, ineffective treatment programs that shame people and swipe their insurance cards instead of helping them heal, etc. And we as a people internalized this message while so many of our own have been abandoned. The jig is up though. This post is not about the intentions of the government or analyzing why things are the way they are. That’s not my lane. This post is a letter to Black people reflecting on some of the psychological effects that the War on Drugs has had on our communities and how we can unlearn the lies we’ve been taught by White supremacy in order to make our communities stronger.

What’s Going On?

Now, Black people, I know I don’t have to explain the stigma/judgment around crack and heroin in our communities, right? Y’all peeped that already? There’s no way you haven’t. We’ve all heard “crackhead” and “dope fiend” jokes. What’s so wild to me is that we know the government put crack in our communities to destabilize us. We know the War on Drugs was a set up and an attack on our communities, but we still crack jokes, disrespect people, judge them, etc. for having a drug use that got out of control. It’s cruel as hell and doesn’t make any kind of sense to blame the people who got caught up instead of the ones who set the trap. Especially when we all got at least 1 person in our families who got caught up in the War on Drugs on some level at some point. It’s a straight numbers game at this point. Local and federal governments treat Black people who struggle with chaotic use of drugs any kinda way with bigoted policies and we as a people let it happen because we generally don’t think they deserve better. Drug laws and policies are already known to have racist roots and the laws are enforced differently depending on the color of your skin. We all know white people get away with using and selling drugs in ways that would get us locked up forever. We don’t need research and news articles to tell us what we see with our own eyes. And it has changed how we think about and treat people in our own communities. Suddenly, he’s not your uncle or your neighbor. He’s dehumanized and turned into a “dope fiend” in your eyes. We’ve been fooled as a people by White supremacy to abandon whole people and forget about them. In my work, I’ve seen clients abandoned by their families: sometimes living right down the street and being outright ignored or some people never seeing their relatives again. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking chaotic substance use is a sign of moral failure or a sickness that means the lives of those Black people don’t matter anymore. The lack of community support is deadly for so many people because these kinds of social services for our own are usually 1 of first to get cut.

And because life ain’t simple, all this stigma is added by other types of bigotry. Many of the Black people who our communities have abandoned for chaotic drug use also happen to be LGBTQAI and/or are living with HIV. This isn’t a coincidence. We are all spoon-fed homophobia/homomisia from a young age. And the sex education in this country is made terrible on purpose. The same people in power who want you to think Black people are criminals and gay people ruin families also want you to be uneducated about sex and sexual health. It shocks me on the regular how many people don’t know the 4 body fluids that transmit HIV or don’t know what a “window period” is. But will seriously think you can get HIV from drinking a cup, sharing a bathroom, or that only gay people get HIV. Just loud and wrong. There is a reason they want you misinformed. Misinformation and racist laws/policies are DEADASS killing our communities. If we all actually knew the truth and used this knowledge to make informed decisions, we’d be stronger as a people. We are struggling as a people when we are willing to let each other die off some “Say No to Drugs” nonsense. Again, we are for real listening to values and policies created by the people who put drugs in our communities in the first place instead of healing ourselves.

The struggles that come with living with HIV and/or being LGBTQAI in a bigoted, ableist society adds to the burden of being Black. Not only are you dealing with a system that is killing you (if racist individuals don’t get to you first), many of your own people don’t even see you as a part of the community or as human. When someone tells you the same thing over and over again, you eventually believe them. If people are being told that they’re dirty, useless, sinners, lazy, will always be an addict, etc. over and over again, eventually they internalize that mess. There have been so many of my former clients who believe using drugs and having a history of “chaotic use” (again check my Drug Use post for a definition) means they “deserve” whatever people do to them or whatever dangerous policies/laws are passed. This sets up the environment for a cycle of poor mental health. Depressive, anxiety, trauma, etc. symptoms can be triggered and made worse by being exposed to bigotry and being abandoned by their families/communities. Living with systemic discrimination and prejudices can lead many people to cope with those psychological burdens with substance use. And that’s not even counting the lack of consistent quality medical care, systemic racism in medical and mental health spaces throughout history and now, and the lack of public health education/awareness available for many Black people. Ultimately, many Black people slip through the cracks and our communities are weaker for it. We talk about revolution, but how can we get free if so many in our communities are being left behind?

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s time for us to look in the mirror. It’s time for us to start to heal as a community and unlearn all the lies. We gotta rebuild the bridges burnt down by believing in white supremacist lies about drug use. What can we all do to make sure people aren’t forgotten? Beyond laws and relying on people outside of our communities to make policy changes for us. Y’all know good and well that we can’t rely on this current political climate. So what can we do?

Some Suggestions:
  • Unlearn myths and stigmas about people who struggle with their drug use (Again, my intro to drug use piece is a great place to start).Where do those “crackhead” jokes come from? What values are they based in? Who taught you that? Are those values worth keeping? Once it really hits you that we as a society shame these victims of the War on Drugs while the ones who instigated it are still in power…the jokes are a lot less funny.

  • Give money, food, clothes, etc. to people who ask for help in real life and on crowdfunding apps. Why donate to companies when you can give directly to people?

  • Pro Bono services/volunteering – what skills do you have or what services you could provide for free to members of your community who need it?

  • Maybe you could reach out to abandoned family members and see what’s good with them (Again, boundaries and self care are important here).

It’s been so wild watching the media suddenly seem to find all this compassion for white people struggling with chaotic use of opioids. It’s a clear slap to the face after years of criminalization, judgment, and abandonment of our people. We need to let go of the biases and the lies we were told about drug use and people who have chaotic substance use. Leaving our own people behind because they use drugs to cope with whatever they’re going through is cruel. Black people have always been denied the same compassion and access to support and we have suffered as a result. We don’t get access to the same treatment professionals, methods or programs. Most of the time, we have to make due with barely the bare minimum. Now, imagine doing that when even other Black people don’t consider you to be fully human. When you’re not factored into the “coming together” or into the revolution plans. That stigma, on top of others like I mentioned before, leaves so many of our own incredibly vulnerable. We as a people will be stronger if we pushed the lies aside and had more compassion for people in our communities who are going through it. This is part of community building and part of revolutionary work.

Thanks for reading. The next post will be about socialization: what it is, and how it affects how people see themselves, other people, and the world.

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