In case, you’ve been living under a rock. Atlanta is had a bit of a traffic nightmare. On March 30, I was riding home, and took the exit to I-85 N. Right, when I was about to pass the exit for Buford Hwy, traffic came to a halt. What appeared to be smoke coming from a car quickly blew into a whole fire causing the bridge to collapse. First, I thanked God that the cars ahead of me were at a halt, stumping my courage to pass through the smoke. Second, I was curious about what was the cause of the fire.
After a two-hour drive home, I woke up the next morning curious to see what happen. So, on my way to work, I turned my radio station from the Breakfast Club (my favorite) to V103 (a local Atlanta station) to find out. There was a comedian on the air. Of course, she had a lot to say about what started the fire as did Twitter. (Funniest one, Future dropped a new mixtape on I-85.) And of course, she went for the trite low-hanging fruit for her punchline, “It was a crackhead.” My eyes rolled so far back into my head, I could read my own thoughts. Later that weekend, news broke that a “crackhead” “allegedly” had something to do with the fire. Ten years ago, you probably would have caught me busting jokes about a “crackhead” burning down an overpass in Atlanta. However, I no longer find pleasure in the “nuances” of a crackhead joke. As our nation tries to grapple with the opioid epidemic, I think it’s time to change the way we talk about addiction within the Black community.
America’s response to the opioid epidemic is in stark contrast to how we all reacted to the crack epidemic. Hindsight is 20/20. Most of us, Republican, Democrats, Blacks and Whites, agree that the war on drugs was more than an overreach. It encompasses systematic racism to the T. Those who possessed and smoked crack were sentenced unequally to cocaine users, strategically targeted poor people, Black and Brown people. This systematic approach was reinforced by many within my own Black ass family. Growing up, I can remember family members treating other family members who were addicted to crack as criminals. My mom explicitly expressed numerous times that these addicted family members needed to be in jail. Well…they did. But what they needed more was rehabilitation.
Treating drug users as buffoons and second-class citizens adds to the criminalization of Black people. That day the world found out the suspect in the I-85 fire was a “crackhead” much comedy ensued. The Breakfast Club participated in making a mockery of what happened. First, the accused was given Donkey of the Day. Then mockingly, DJ Envy and Charlemagne Tha God (Angela Yee wasn’t present) ranked the top crackheads in Black culture. I know The Breakfast Club teeters the line between shock jock and satirical. Yet, this a reflection of how we as a community view crack addiction. Throughout comedic history, the best jokes were the crack-head jokes. There’s Richard Pryor’s crack pipe, MADtv’s Whitney Houston, Dave Chappelle’s Tyrone Biggums’s and now Instagram’s Southpark Shawty. We all point and laugh at the neighborhood crackhead growing up. We all participate in the banter. But this mockery of addiction is dangerous, particularly under this new administration with the mantra of “law and order.”
Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is currently on his nation-wide tour to decry the perils of marijuana and other drugs. Let him tell it, we are all living in carnage under the control of drug lords. (I guess he forgot that marijuana is legal in some form in over 20 states.) Still, there’s hardly such strong language about the opioid crisis in comparison to crack in the past. Ironic since it has its biggest impact in Trump country. Mocking crack addicts doesn’t help our case in proving the government’s hypocrisy either. It further criminalizes addiction instead of treating it like a health issue. Now, altering our treatment of drug addicts will not stop Sessions from seeing addiction through the lens of race and criminality. However, it will better prepare us to defend our case for the same rehabilitation and health resources opioid users have.
Changing the perception of addiction also have to start with our own Black leaders. Here in Atlanta, there was a proposed bill that introduced the first step in decriminalizing marijuana, a drug not as addictive as crack. City Council Kwanza Hall introduced this bill with the potential of reducing jail time and criminal records for Black folks with one ounce or less. In spite of this, the bill has halted. How did a bill in a city with a majority of Black constitutes and a Black mayor miss the finish line by such a significant measure? Well, it could be that the mayor and other Atlanta officials are in line with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his thoughts about MaryJane—It’s a gateway drug. In other words, despite marijuana’s potential medical use, business and tax revenue, for Black people, it’s still a criminal offense deserving of a lifetime criminal record.
So, here we are. How do you move forward? How do we gain ground in reforming the way Black addicts are treated? We have to change our perception of addiction and drugs. We also have to lay the ground work for changing other’s perception of it. Distributing drugs is a criminal act. Doing drugs isn’t. It’s a sickness. Crack users are not crackheads. They’re addicts. Removing words like “crackhead,” “crack whore,” and even the word “crazy,” will validate to the outside world that our friends and family members who are addicted to drugs are worthy of respect and rehabilitation.