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The War on Drugs That Wasn’t: Wasted Whiteness, “Dirty Doctors,” and Race in Media Coverage of Prescription Opioid Misuse

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The past decade in the U.S. has been marked by a media fascination with the white prescription opioid cum heroin user. In this paper, we contrast media coverage of white non-medical opioid users with that of black and brown heroin users to show how divergent representations lead to different public and policy responses. A content analysis of 100 popular press articles from 2001 and 2011 in which half describe heroin users and half describe prescription opioid users revealed a consistent contrast between criminalized urban black and Latino heroin injectors with sympathetic portrayals of suburban white prescription opioid users. Media coverage of the suburban and rural opioid “epidemic” of the 2000s helped draw a symbolic, and then legal, distinction between (urban) heroin addiction and (suburban and rural) prescription opioid addiction that is reminiscent of the legal distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine of the 1980s and 1990s. This distinction reinforces the racialized deployment of the War on Drugs and is sustained by the lack of explicit discussion of race in the service of “color blind ideology.” We suggest potential correctives to these racially divergent patterns, in the form of socially responsible media practices and of clinical engagement with public policy.

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We wish to acknowledge the crucial assistance of Alyson Kaplan, Danae DiRocco, Laura Duncan and Sewit Bereket with data analysis.


Support for this study was received from the Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Investigator Award (to Helena Hansen) and U.S. National Institutes of Health grant DA032674 (to Helena Hansen).

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Correspondence to Helena B. Hansen.

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Netherland, J., Hansen, H.B. The War on Drugs That Wasn’t: Wasted Whiteness, “Dirty Doctors,” and Race in Media Coverage of Prescription Opioid Misuse. Cult Med Psychiatry 40, 664–686 (2016).

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