America's War on Drugs Has Treated People Unequally Since Its Beginning


AUGUST 12, 2019

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

Judy Garland

Judy Garland

When Prohibition ended in 1933, drug enforcers finally had a new agency they could call their own, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. This launched the career of its first commissioner, Harry Anslinger, the person most synonymous with the phrase “war on drugs”—in fact, the first person to use it—and likely the first person, outside of any royal family, to be referred to as a “czar.”

Between 1930 and 1962, Anslinger established the standards that continue to serve as basic tools of the trade for America’s drug enforcement, such as dramatic drug busts, harsh penalties and questionable data. There remains serious disagreement in scholarly as well as political circles about how successful Anslinger really was in reducing drug sales and use in America, though he achieved several significant legislative victories, including the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act, which fostered collaboration between federal agents and police in different states (each of which had its own specific laws).

But, as difficult as passing drug laws is, enforcing them effectively, consistently and fairly has proven to be virtually impossible.

Anslinger unapologetically divided the world into us and them, good and bad, right and wrong—and always black and white. While Anslinger’s 30-year war on drugs undoubtedly saved the lives of some individuals, his racial prejudices tarnished his reputation in ways that, even allowing for 20/20 hindsight, can’t be dismissed. The most blatant example was his disparate treatment of two of the nation’s most famous celebrities in the 1950s: Judy Garland and Billie Holiday. Click here to continue reading the article.


By Nick Fouriezos

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It’s the number that Brittany Barnett will never forget: 1374671. Seven digits assigned to her mother after she was arrested on a felony charge of assault and bail jumping related to her crack cocaine addiction.

The experience hit home as Barnett later changed career tracks, leaving accounting behind to study law at Southern Methodist University in Texas, a state that incarcerates more people than any other in the country. But since then, the former corporate lawyer has done more than she could have imagined for the plight of prisoners like her mom.

This spring, Barnett helped secure the release of 17 federal prisoners in 90 days under the newly passed First Step Act — a feat that drew national headlines because it was partially funded by Kim Kardashian West. It was the culmination of what she started in summer 2017 with the Buried Alive Project, a nonprofit working to eliminate life-without-parole sentences. “Life without parole is the second-most-severe penalty permitted by law in America, and we’re imposing this sentence on people with drug offenses. It’s mind-blowing to me,” Barnett says. “Reform, to me, is a fix. What we need is a fundamental shift to transform the system.”

Barnett has just finished a training event on compassionate release — where sick, elderly or disabled prisoners are set free early — for lawyers at the Washington, D.C., offices of lobbying giant Akin Gump when the Texas native lets her roots show. With a slight drawl, the 35-year-old spells out “B-O-G-A-T-A,” the 1,200-person town she grew up in, where the Rivercrest Rebels played high school football under a Confederate battle flag. “I can honestly say that growing up, I didn’t experience much racism,” she says. Instead, it showed up in less obvious ways, such as a childhood friend who got a life sentence for drugs when he was 23 years old. “We thought, Jeez, this is just East Texas. What I didn’t know is that he wasn’t an anomaly.”

The sweet tea and trap music lover’s goal today is to dredge up pro bono lawyers who are willing to work with some of the 1,600 people in the federal justice system who are serving life for drugs. Just getting that number was difficult enough: The Department of Justice wasn’t keen to share the information, Barnett says, and so her Buried Alive Project team had to piece together the records themselves. “If you don’t have a good counsel, it turns what is a difficult fight into one that is impossible. So the work she is doing is so important, just to ensure we have a fair and just system,” says David Safavian, deputy director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union.

The First Step Act is expected to lead to the release of more than 2,200 prisoners locked up for nonviolent drug crimes. But for many critics, it didn’t go far enough. While it eliminated so-called “stacked” sentences for future defendants, it didn’t reverse them retroactively for those currently in the system, meaning some people are serving up to 55 years for what may be only a five-year sentence today, Safavian says. To try to combat some of those challenges, Barnett recently launched the Third Strike Campaign, telling the stories of 13 prisoners who weren’t released under the First Step Act. “You have people spending life sentences today under yesterday’s laws,” Barnett says.



The story of how Barnett and West joined forces begins with a critical race theory class that Barnett took at SMU — a class that she had to beg to be let into, because it was overbooked. “That was the only time I ever have” made an exception, says David Lacy, who was teaching the course. Barnett, studying to be a lawyer at the time, began investigating the human faces of a war on drugs that required 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine to invoke equal mandatory minimum sentences — a distinction mostly made along racial lines. “There were people talking about it 10 years ago, but it didn’t have nearly the momentum it has right now,” Lacy says.

It was in those studies that she met Sharanda Jones, the first woman serving life whom she would later help free through clemency in 2015, under the Obama administration. Soon after, she took on the case of Alice Johnson, a convicted drug trafficker and friend of Jones, whose moving video (below) reached West. The celebrity entrepreneur visited the White House in the summer of 2018 to discuss prison reform with President Donald Trump, and, a week later, the great-grandmother was granted clemency and released.

Still, West’s involvement didn’t come without controversy. As West helped fund a three-month sprint by Barnett and her business partner, MiAngel Cody, to release as many prisoners as possible earlier this year, criminal justice advocates complained about the attention she was getting — headlines implying West was becoming a lawyer and freeing these people herself, distracting from the years of work done by less-famous people on the ground. Amid those complaints, Barnett posted on Facebook that West had “linked arms with us to support us when foundations turned us down,” and that at the end of the day, “TWO Black women lawyers freed 17 people from LIFE W/O PAROLE sentences.”

Looking back at that moment, Barnett says she posted because she wanted to defend West against criticism. “People know that Kim’s not going to court and arguing in front of a judge,” she says. She understands that some people took that as her wanting credit, which she denies, before adding: “I stand on the fact that it is very important for little Black girls in Bogata, Texas, and other rural areas, to see that Black women are doing this work.” Even with many challenges ahead, Barnett has hope for one simple reason: The human narratives behind unjust sentences are starting to be told. “Being able to put a heartbeat to the number,” she says — a number just like her mother’s. Nick Fouriezos, Reporter

Opioid Addiction Drug Going Mostly To Whites, Even As Black Death Rate Rises


May 8, 20191:46 PM ET

Heard on All Things Considered


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Buprenorphine, better known by the brand name Suboxone, helps people with opioid addiction stay in recovery. But it is prescribed far more often to white drug users than to blacks.

Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe via Getty Images

White drug users addicted to heroin, fentanyl and other opioids have had near exclusive access to buprenorphine, a drug that curbs the craving for opioids and reduces the chance of a fatal overdose. That's according to a study out Wednesday from the University of Michigan. It appears in JAMA Psychiatry.

Researchers reviewed two national surveys of physician-reported prescriptions. Between 2012 and 2015, as overdose deaths surged in many states, so did the number of visits during which a doctor or nurse practitioner prescribed buprenorphine, often referred to by its brand name, Suboxone. The researchers assessed 13.4 million medical encounters involving the drug but found no increase in prescriptions written for African Americans and other minorities.

"White populations are almost 35 times as likely to have a buprenorphine-related visit than black Americans," says Dr. Pooja Lagisetty, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and the study's corresponding author.

The dominant use of buprenorphine to treat whites occurred at the same time opioid overdose deaths were rising faster for blacks than for whites.

"This epidemic over the last few years has been framed by many as largely a white epidemic, but we know now that's not true," Lagisetty says.

What is true, Lagisetty added, is that most of the white patients either paid cash (40%) or relied on private insurance (35%) to fund their buprenorphine treatment. The fact that just 25% of the visits were paid for through Medicaid and Medicare "does highlight that many of these visits could be very costly for persons of low income," Lagisetty says.

Doctors and nurse practitioners can demand cash payments because there's a shortage of clinicians who can prescribe buprenorphine, according to Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of Opioid Policy Research at Brandeis University. Only about 5% of physicians have taken the special training required to prescribe buprenorphine.

"The few that are doing it are really able to name their price, and that's what we're seeing here and that's the reason why individuals with more resources — who are more likely to be white — are more likely to access treatment with buprenorphine," says Kolodny, who was not involved in the study.

Kolodny wants the federal government to eliminate the required special training for buprenorphine and a related cap on the number of patients a doctor can manage on the drug.

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Some physicians who have studied racial disparities in addiction treatment say the root causes go back to 2000, when buprenorphine was approved. At that time, proponents argued that buprenorphine was needed to help treat suburban youth, says Dr. Helena Hansen at New York University. Those young patients didn't see themselves as addicted to heroin in the same way as hard-core urban heroin users who went to methadone clinics for treatment, she says.

"Buprenorphine was introduced as private office treatment, for a private market, with the means to pay," says Hansen, an associate professor of psychiatry and anthropology. "So the unequal dissemination of buprenorphine for opioid dependence is not accidental."

Hansen added that the fix must include universal access to treatment in a primary care setting, an end to the criminalization of opioid dependence (which puts more blacks in prison for drug use than whites), and more federal funding to expand access to buprenorphine for all patients.

Several leaders in the fight to reduce opioid overdose deaths say the study results are disturbing.

"It really demands for us to be looking at equitable treatment for addiction for African Americans as we do for white Americans," says Michael Botticelli, director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center and the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Botticelli identified some key issues that may be contributing to the racial treatment gap that deserve further investigation. For example, he wants to know whether Medicaid reimbursement rates are simply too low to entice more doctors to work with low-income patients, or there are too few inner-city doctors prescribing buprenorphine, or African Americans themselves are somehow reluctant to seek this form of treatment.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, called the findings surprising and disturbing. Surprising because the disparity is so large, and disturbing because her agency has prioritized educating doctors about the value of prescribing buprenorphine.

Volkow also expressed disappointment that federal parity laws, which are supposed to guarantee equal access to all types of medications, don't seem to be working for buprenorphine. "We need to ensure that we have capacity to provide these treatments," Volkow says. "Because if you say you have to pay for them, but there are no services that can provide the treatments, then the issue of paying for them is secondary."

Volkow has noted that fewer than half of Americans with an opioid use disorder have access to buprenorphine or the two other medications used to treat opioid addiction: methadone and naltrexone. Volkow said she is glad that the use of buprenorphine is on the rise, but the U.S. needs to understand why this lifesaving treatment isn't benefiting all patients who need it.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes WBUR, NPR and Kaiser Health News.


Recovery Community Organizations in Medically Underserved Communities of Color

by Joe Powell

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A Recovery Community Organization (RCO) is an independent, non-profit organization led by persons in recovery, their family members, friends and allies. RCOs provide a combination of long-term peer-based recovery supports, community education, grassroots mobilization and advocacy to support recovery. The sole mission of an RCO is to mobilize resources within and outside of a community to increase the prevalence and quality of long-term recovery within a community (Valentine, White and Taylor, 2007).

 In 1998 SAMSHA funded 20 RCOs throughout the United States to advocate and educate communities about the long-term effects of recovery. It was in the same year that the Association of Persons Affected by Addiction (APAA) was founded by people from various backgrounds and experiences. We had one simple purpose and that was to spread recovery in Dallas Texas. Now 21 years later, we know through experience that the RCO model is ideal for African American communities impacted by addiction and co-occurring mental health challenges. Recovery flourishes in a community that is connected to a network of strength-based services; and that network thrives because of the experiential knowledge and lived experience of the people in recovery and allies.

While many African Americans receive services in traditional addiction treatment programs many of these programs offer acute care solutions to a chronic and progressive illness. Simply, they focus on the problem and the person’s weakness rather than their strengths and supports. Many of these programs are located outside of the black community and offer little to no continued cultural hope or recovery support upon discharge. It became clear that services were needed within the community to support recovery. APAA moved to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in the heart of a black community in Dallas. The first thing our RCO did was Map the entire community for recovery capital and champions. In the community there were churches, barbershops, police stations, grocery stores, community groups, 12 step meetings etc. We pulled the entire community together, bringing addiction out of the closet and we mobilized the community to support recovery. We viewed the entire community as the recovery center. We noted that there were many liquor stores in the community and no programs to support recovery. We started training and hiring recovery coaches within the community to support long term recovery. Treatment centers often lose funding and shut down. We have found that offering a peer-based solution in the black community is a great solution.

Federal, State, County and the city council is now involved in our recovery efforts. Our funding is now provided by various community groups who see the benefits of anchoring recovery in the community. While there is much work to do, we have a thriving recovering community in Dallas. We coordinated the 2016 National Recovery Celebration and look forward to hosting the 2019 Big Texas Rally for Recovery. 

About the Author

Joe Powell is the President and CEO of APAA a leading peer driven, peer led, and peer ran recovery community organization. He is recipient of the Vernon Johnson Award for advocacy. 

Implementing Cultural Competence in a Trauma Informed Setting for African-American Emerging Adults with Co-occurring Disorders

by Fred Dyer, PhD, CADC

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The aforementioned title of this post reminds those of us who are working with African American Emerging Adults with Co-occurring Disorders, and/or those who desire to, that due to the early exposure of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE'S) and their impact psychiactrically, behaviorally and developmentally, when working with African Emerging adults it is necessary to be able to respond to the trauma in their lives in a culturally competent/sensitive manner.

 Laura Brown{2008} reminds us of the importance of cultural competence  in trauma informed care by stating that "Healthcare delivery of services for emerging adults  cannot be all inclusive without embracing, the need  for cultural competence/sensitivity, and even the best practices lack efficacy when culture is not incorporated as a trauma-informed solution. Additionally failure to bring cultural competence to the table can lead to missteps in genuinely helping African American emerging Adult trauma survivors or worse can result in deepening the wounds of trauma, creating secondary and tertiary traumas that are more painful than the original because they are appraised by victims and survivors as unnecessary wounds.

 As with other important topics time nor space affords the appropriate amount of time to discuss. However any discussion/treatment of trauma must and should include: Historical trauma and culturally competent/ sensitive practice parameters for healing historical trauma.

The following are a few principles for implementing culturally competent/sensitive trauma informed -care with African- American emerging adults with co-occurring disorders. 1. connect clients with resources they trust including types of professionals and traditional healers, 2. help clients to restore a sense of safety, 3. connect clients with elders who lived thru traumatic events and who managed trauma, discrimination, and setbacks, 4. remember it is important to ask clients "what the event means to them. It is clear that addressing cultural competency and utilizing cultural sensitivity in a trauma -informed setting with African - American emerging adults with co-occurring disorders is no longer an exception, but rather an expectation.