From Junkies to Victims The Racial Projects of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the U.S. Opioid Epidemic

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Raymond Rosas


In the context of narcotic drug epidemics, racist logics can shape policy deliberation and delimit uptake. While critical public health scholars have situated the U.S. opioid epidemic as demonstrative of such logics, in rhetoric the opioid epidemic has failed to register as an important deliberative context for representational contestation regarding race and racism. Drawing on Jürgen Habermas’ (1985) steering mediums (steurungsmedium) and Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s (2015) racial formation theory, this essay analyzes the U.S. Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and Purdue Pharma executive J. David Haddox’s testimony before Congress to show the extent to which racial hegemony saturates juridical engagements at the federal level. Where wide-scale opioid use is concerned, this analysis demonstrates that disparate policy outcomes are largely a reflection of structural and representational inequality along racial lines. This essay thus invites scholars of health and medical rhetoric to consider how processes of controversy and medicalization function to preserve racial hegemony.

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