White Opioids: Pharmaceuticals, Race, and the War on Drugs That Wasn’t | Lecture with Helena Hansen, MD, PhD

Helena Hansen
Image via Patrick Verel

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 115 Americans die every day due to opioid overdose, creating a national crisis affecting public health, social and economic welfare.

To fully grasp how opioid addiction has affected United States communities, Americans need to see race as a key factor in how we approach drug addiction, said Helena B. Hansen, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and anthropology at New York University, in a March 8th lecture, “White Opioids: Pharmaceuticals, Race, and the War on Drugs That Wasn’t,” sponsored by Fordham University’s Center for Ethics Education.

Dr. Hansen argued that the current crisis is partly the result of a stark racial divide: When white Americans become addicted, it’s seen as proof of a breakdown of society, but when minorities become addicted, it’s viewed as evidence of an individual’s moral failing.

This outlook was reflected in the 1980s when penalties for possession of crack were higher than for possession of cocaine, she said. It has continued with the creation, marketing, and distribution of buprenorphine, which is commonly sold under the name Suboxone, a pain killer geared specifically to white, middle class Americans. Dr. Hansen compared it (and its predecessor, Oxycodone) to Methadone, which is distributed in troubled inner-city neighborhoods.

“The current generation of opioids were designed to have white racial identities, and in our stratified health care and justice systems, the biotechnologies and social technologies shaping opioid consumption reinforce racial inequalities, while at the same time harming whites,” she said.

This sort of racial targeting has actually hurt whites as much as it has hurt minorities, she said. It has led to implicit assumptions that whites are not as susceptible to addiction-even as Oxycontin addiction rates among whites have climbed, due to a ten-fold increase in prescription opioids nationally, “with the disproportionate uptake by prescribers in white suburban and rural areas.”

In the long run, Dr. Hansen expressed hope that this current moment of despair over white deaths will spur efforts to transform America’s health care system into one that’s less market driven and more equitable.

“Our predominant frame for addiction in this country has-until recently-been that it’s an individual, moral character problem . . . [that]people are making bad choices, they’re just not strong enough, or perhaps they come from bad families with bad values,” she said.

“Americans are beginning to realize that maybe addiction is related to our economic system and the social networks that people don’t now have.”

To read the original article, please visit Fordham News.

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