White opioids: Pharmaceutical race and the war on drugs that wasn’t
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The US ‘War on Drugs’ has had a profound role in reinforcing racial hierarchies. Although Black Americans are no more likely than Whites to use illicit drugs, they are 6–10 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses. Meanwhile, a very different system for responding to the drug use of Whites has emerged. This article uses the recent history of White opioids – the synthetic opiates such as OxyContin® that gained notoriety starting in the 1990s in connection with epidemic prescription medication abuse among White, suburban and rural Americans and Suboxone® that came on the market as an addiction treatment in the 2000s – to show how American drug policy is racialized, using the lesser known lens of decriminalized White drugs. Examining four ‘technologies of whiteness’ (neuroscience, pharmaceutical technology, legislative innovation and marketing), we trace a separate system for categorizing and disciplining drug use among Whites. This less examined ‘White drug war’ has carved out a less punitive, clinical realm for Whites where their drug use is decriminalized, treated primarily as a biomedical disease, and where their whiteness is preserved, leaving intact more punitive systems that govern the drug use of people of color.
Keywordsaddiction whiteness prescription opioids heroin
The authors wish to acknowledge Sonia Mendoza, Laura Duncan, Alyson Kaplan, and Danae DiRocco for their help with media analysis for this paper, as well as the helpful comments of David Herzberg, Donna Murch and Jessie Daniels on an earlier draft of this paper, and the useful suggestions of three anonymous reviewers. This paper was supported by a U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse K01 award (to Hansen), as well as a Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholars Program Fellowship and a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Investigator Award (to Hansen).
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