When the war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. In today’s heroin crisis, says the New York Times, nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade wee white. The growing list of families of those lost to heroin are using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the nation's approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease. “Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered,” said White House drug czar Michael Botticelli. “They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”
Presidential candidates of both parties are talking about the drug epidemic, with Hillary Clinton hosting forums on the issue as Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina tell their own stories of loss while calling for more care and empathy. President Obama traveled to West Virginia, a mostly white state with high levels of overdoses, to discuss his $133 million plan to expand access for drug treatment and prevention programs. Some local police departments have stopped punishing many heroin users. In Gloucester, Ma., those who walk into the police station and ask for help, even if they are carrying drugs or needles, are no longer arrested. Instead, they are diverted to treatment. It is an approach being replicated by three dozen other police departments. A broad consensus seems to be emerging: The drug problem will not be solved by arrests alone, but rather by treatment.