April 4, 2020
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How Has the Opioid Epidemic Been Handled Differently than the Crack Epidemic of the 1980s?

Race has been a factor in healthcare services and management throughout the history of the United States, which might make a person wonder, “How has the opioid epidemic been handled differently than the crack epidemic of the 1980s?” While the epidemic of crack cocaine use heavily affected African Americans, the opioid epidemic has been concentrated in Caucasians. Knowing how healthcare professionals, lawmakers, and others have handled the epidemics differently provides a plan for action in order to reduce racial disparities in healthcare and addiction in the future.

Related resource: Top 25 Online MPH Programs (Master’s in Public Health)

Demographics of the Crack Cocaine Epidemic of the 1980s

Crack cocaine was introduced in the 1970s, and it became popular in the 1980s, peaking during this time. An estimated 6,222,000 Americans have used crack cocaine in their lifetimes. Drug dealers targeted inner-city residents with this illegal drug. The result was that although African Americans made up about 12.2 percent of the American population during the 1980s, they accounted for more than 37 percent of crack cocaine users.

Demographics of the Ongoing Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic got its start from drug companies pushing narcotic pain relievers and willfully deceiving physicians about the side effects and potential for addiction to those drugs. The doctors wrote an overabundance of prescriptions for the pain pills. Clinics in rural, low-income areas had some of the highest rates of use of opioid pain relief prescriptions. Once the government started to shut down those clinics, people turned to heroin. Drug dealers tarted to cut the heroin with fentanyl, a drug 100 times more powerful than heroin, leading to many overdoses and deaths. Caucasian people account for about 75 percent of the American population, but they account for around 81 percent of opioid overdoses and deaths.

Government Response to the Crack Epidemic

According to Kaiser Health News, Congress set up a series of legislation that was signed into law by President Reagan. That legislation enacted increasingly tough sentencing guidelines for the possession and distribution of crack cocaine. The result was that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created mandatory minimum sentencing of five years in prison for the possession of five grams of crack cocaine. A person would have to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same minimum sentence.

Government Response to the Opioid Epidemic

Heroin and fentanyl are Schedule I drugs. Possession of 100 grams yields a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. However, the government has been much slower to penalize the manufacturers and pharmaceutical representatives who lied about the opioid drugs. Some manufacturers were fined, and lawsuits are pending. Some doctors who set up “pill mill” clinics have been sentenced to prison time for writing illegal opioid prescriptions. Those sentences have ranged in length from 5 to 40 years.

These two different epidemics of drug addiction show the differences in how governments and healthcare providers treat addiction with treatment, prevention, and education versus punishment. When considering how much it costs to send a person to prison per year, prevention, education and treatment programs are much more cost-effective. Understanding the answer to, “How has the opioid epidemic been handled differently than the crack epidemic of the 1980s?” is a good first step to reducing race-related healthcare disparities in the United States.