Chris Christie isn’t the most likely source of liberal endearment, but recently, he found a cause that could garner him support from those even on the far left. “I’m pro-life, and I think that if you’re pro-life, you’ve gotta be pro-life for the whole life, not just the nine months they’re in the womb,” he said in a speech, which has now become viral, in New Hampshire. “The teenage girl on the floor of the county lockup addicted to heroin, I’m pro-life for her.”
Christie’s remarks come at a time when politicians across the political spectrum are racing to make the claim that their drug policies are about rehabilitation, not incarceration. In “Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice,” a book published in April by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, Christie, Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Perry—hardly political bedfellows—all agreed that nonviolent drug offenders need to be kept out of prisons and brought into rehab centers. As the book’s editors write, “These sentiments are a far cry from politicians racing to be the most punitive in the 1980s and 1990s.”
The targets of the editors’ criticism are the so-called “zero-tolerance” policies of the time, aimed at ridding predominantly black inner city communities of violence. Proponents of these policies argued that, in order to reduce crime, cities had to enforce every law—including those against possession of small quantities of drugs and even more petty crimes, like littering and loitering. Supporters included the mainstay of establishment liberal politicians. Joe Biden wrote part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created a 100-to-one sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine. Hillary Clinton lobbied liberals in 1994 for a bill that called for harsher sentences than those already in place.
These bills formed a drug policy that has disproportionally affected black and Latino citizens. The sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine offered lenient sentences for using cocaine, the purer, more expensive version of the drug, and harsh sentences for crack, the cheaper drug used mostly in poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods. Today, according to the ACLU, black people are four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite using the drug at a similar rate.
Conveniently, the shift politicians are making in drug policy is occurring during a heroin epidemic that is increasingly affecting white, middle-class people. According to a study published in 2014 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, 90 percent of heroin users during this decade have been white, compared with 70 percent in the 1990s and less than 60 percent in the 1980s. While less than half of heroin users in the 1980s and 1990s used a prescription opioid—only available to those who can afford medical treatment—prior to taking heroin, over 60 percent of heroin users this decade have started with a prescription opioid.
As a result, the popular attitude toward drug use has shifted. In a recent New York Times article, Doug Griffin, the parent of someone who later died of a heroin overdose, was quoted as saying, “When I was a kid, junkies were the worst.” Now, though, his position has changed: “They’re working right next to you and you don’t know it. They’re in my daughter’s bedroom—they are my daughter.” Recently, Griffin testified to the New Hampshire legislature in support of a bill that gives friends and families access to Naloxone, the drug used to treat heroin overdoses. The bill passed and the law went into effect in June.
In recent months, politicians have told their stories about addiction. Their stories and Griffin’s have a lot in common, including in their morals. Addiction can affect everyone, they seem to say—no matter how rich or white. Carly Fiorina, for instance, discussed losing her stepdaughter to a drug addiction. Jeb Bush’s daughter had a problem with substance abuse. Chris Christie’s friend from law school died after becoming addicted to opiates, which he was prescribed after having hurt his back. These experiences have then affected policy. Since his friend’s death, Christie has signed “Good Samaritan” laws that provide immunity from arrest for people who call 911 in response to a drug overdose.
Changes in attitudes toward drug use can save lives and improve chances of rehabilitation. In 1990, when politicians were proclaiming their support for harsh sentencing, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that half of the methadone clinics in the country were poorly managed. And according to journalist Sam Quinones in “Dreamland,” a book about America’s modern opiate epidemic, the clinics often provided addicts with doses of methadone that were too small to alleviate their cravings. Without providing sufficient therapeutic support, Quinones argues, these clinics made addicts susceptible to relapses. At a time when heroin-related overdoses are climbing rapidly—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin-related deaths increased by 39 percent from 2012 to 2013—it is necessary that we have strong rehabilitation programs.
But these programs were necessary, too, when half of all heroin users were black. They were necessary when users weren’t familiar to politicians or wealthier parents like Griffin, whose daughter’s addiction led her to steal $400 a day from her parents. In “Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America,” historian David Courtwright summed up the history of drug policy in the United States: “What we think about addiction very much depends on who is addicted.” A gentler drug policy would be beneficial to all of those addicted and affected by addiction. But we must not forget the truth in Courtwright’s statement—for it is possible that the majority of users a couple of years in the future will, once again, be poor and black. And if we don’t listen to Courtwright’s lesson, we risk reverting to the drug policies of the ’90s.
Lee is a member of the Class of 2016.