The crack epidemic swept through the black community in the United States in the early 1980s. Despite the increasing use of powder cocaine in metropolitan areas and suburbs, the “crackheads” giving birth to “crack babies” were subject to narratives that portrayed black drug users as a threat to others, which was to be contained rather than treated. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created stricter penalties for users. The mandatory minimums disproportionately incarcerated African Americans and adversely impacted a number of urban neighborhoods. The psychology driving the mandate to incarcerate African American, impoverished drug addicts relied on tales of gang warfare, laziness, and child neglect.

Now, the opioid crisis is considered a national emergency, as declared by President Trump in October 2017. The users of these drugs span an economic and racial spectrum, with a particular emphasis in rural communities. For example, one in seven opioid users in Ohio is a construction worker. The employment of crack addicts in the 1980s was not a subject of research, legislation, or news.

This Article examines the importance of stories, particularly those with racial tropes, in the creation and enforcement of drug legislation. The environments in which crack was prevalent are marked by economic distress. Disinvestment and high poverty rates in these low-income, minority neighborhoods are more commonly framed as personal failures by criminals. The story of opioids is centered on a group of people who can be saved through healthcare, treatment, and leniency. If the stories of crack addicts focused on victims of external circumstances rather than villains by individual choice, it is likely that the persistence of poverty in African American neighborhoods would have a different ending.

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