"I think we have to be honest about this. Part of what has made it previously difficult to emphasize treatment over the criminal justice system has to do with the fact that the populations effected in the past were viewed as, or stereotypically identified as poor, minority...and as a consequence, the thinking was it is often a character flaw in those individuals who live in those communities, and it's not our problem they're just being locked up."
- President Obama
As a long awaited and hard earned tipping point has begun to sweep across the country when it comes to viewing and addressing substance use disorder as a public health concern rather than a character or community flaw, there is no time like the present to have the conversation in full. We cannot begin to see true reform until we are willing to talk openly, honestly and transparently about the big picture and all of the social determinants that brought us to where we are. While I join the hundreds of thousands of advocates who emphatically welcome this emerging tipping point, I am also part of a growing group who recognizes and wishes to address the fact that there is a significant piece of the conversation still being brushed off to the side. There is still a large number of American citizens and communities who have been and continue to be traumatically impacted by years and years of substance use disorder being criminalized rather than treated as the preventable and treatable health condition we know it to be. The reality is, talking about the big picture here includes talking about the fact that the criminalization of substance use disorder was the American way until we saw white middle and upper class Americans ending up in our jails and morgues.
With the President calling yesterday for a widely celebrated Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Parity Task Force, the time is now to ensure that we are also bringing together stakeholders to adequately address the racial disparities that influence access to recovery. This conversation must take place at the national level and be led by people of color with representation from all those affected if we are to ever see real progress. In that conversation, we must acknowledge the enormous devastation that has resulted from past policies, identify ways to atone for the damages this social injustice has caused (i.e. barriers to employment, education and housing) and go on to create new policies that ensure each and every American has an equal opportunity at recovery from a substance use disorder. Every single individual, their family and their community deserves the life of wellness and prosperity that recovery can bring. It is time that we move into making this possibility a reality. I hope that you will join me in calling for this conversation.