On the interstate I pass the billboards, those 672-square-foot messages of concern about the growing number of people dealing with opioid addictions, and a warm feeling rises in me. While the addiction treatment centers paying for those messages in two-foot high letters stand to make money for providing their services, the billboards don’t convey the same aura of advertising-for-profit as the next one I pass: “Exit 90: Beer, Cigarettes, Gas $1.78.”

These messages that are catching my eye suggest an equally big-as-all-outdoors concern about the epidemic, and our friends and neighbors in need. They tell the world that we are all concerned. You can sense it in the air, and our collective compassion is, literally, “writ large” on these arteries of travel and commerce crisscrossing our troubled nation.

The billboards are great signs, their messages a great sign for trying times.

And it’s everywhere, this concern for our nation. There is a sympathy for these good people; it’s clear from the way we are talking about them. Addiction is a disease. Our hearts go out to those who are dealing with such a heavy burden. Our compassion outweighs any judgment on bad decisions made, any condescension for money wasted, lives squandered. You can feel this warmth coming off these highway reminders; you can hear it on the talk shows, in the words of the president.

Opioid abuse is an epidemic problem. It’s killing people. We need to help solve the problem. It’s our responsibility to help these people, return some goodness to their lives, and restore their dignity, not to mention their productive roles in society.

The compassion is inspiring. It makes me proud of the nation: their problem is our problem, we are reserving judgment on the afflicted, and we have made a commitment to invest the money and the effort needed, on a national scale, to solve the problem.

It makes me proud, just like our response to the crack cocaine epidemic.

Or maybe not.

Opioid abuse is a tragedy; crack cocaine use is a crime. Opioid users are members of society who need to be valued and restored; crack cocaine addicts are criminals who need to be locked away. Opioid addiction needs to be treated with compassion and medical intervention; crack cocaine addiction deserves increased “law and order.”

With the opioid epidemic we seek the peace of the addicted; with the crack epidemic, an all-out war on drug users. Opioid use is treated with careful diagnosis; crack abuse with mandatory sentencing. Opioid recovery is to be celebrated; recovery from crack cocaine … well, who cares if anyone recovers from crack?

Maybe my cynicism is unwarranted, unfair — or maybe our more usual careless naiveté about the similarities in the addictions and the differences in our response is a symptom of an even more insidious sickness. The fact of the matter is that most opioid users are middle-class or above and white, and most crack cocaine abusers are poor and black.

Could the lines of the détente actually be that twisted, our biases that blind, our compassion that prejudiced? Yes. The signs of our ongoing racism are that obvious — they’re scrawled across the soul of the nation.

But who’s going to pay for that on a billboard?


Photo by Noah Silliman