QMJC February 2019: The War on Drugs That Wasn't: Wasted Whiteness, “Dirty Doctors,” and Race in Media Coverage of Prescription Opioid Misuse

First published: 14/07/2020 | Last updated: July 14th, 2020

Article: The War on Drugs That Wasn’t: Wasted Whiteness, “Dirty Doctors,” and Race in Media Coverage of Prescription Opioid Misuse. Julie Netherland & Helena B. Hansen (2016) Cult Med Psychiatry, 40(4): 664–686.

Vancouver reading group – February 2019 meeting: Alex Collins, Samara Mayer, Taylor Fleming, Michelle Olding, Cara Ng, Loulou Chayama, Jennifer Lavalley, Scott Neufeld, Ryan McNeil

In this article, Netherland and Hansen present a compelling analysis of racialized differences in popular media descriptions of opioid users. This work is a part of the authors’ wider project to highlight the racialized dynamics of the ongoing opioid overdose crisis as an extension of the racial inequities that have always characterized the War on Drugs (see Daniels, Netherland & Lyon, 2018; Hatcher, Mendoza, & Hansen, 2018; Netherland & Hansen, 2017).

Data consisted of 100 newspaper articles randomly selected from a larger sample of articles (identified via a Lexus Nexus® news index search) that dealt with opioid use and were published in 2001 and 2011 in mainstream news media. Half of the articles selected in each time-period dealt with “heroin use” and the other half dealt with “non-medical prescription opioid use”. This enabled comparisons across time and between these subpopulations of people who use opioids. Their analysis lays out systematic evidence for how media depictions of white opioid users typically emphasize the “surprise” of white drug use coupled with complex and humanizing explanations for how white subjects blamelessly “fell into” drug use. These narratives serve to produce a sense of empathy in imagined white readers while simultaneously cueing outrage at the wasted potential of these subjects’ unmarked whiteness.

Popular news media is an important site for understanding the discursive strategies that shape the opioid crisis and it was inspiring to read such an excellent example of qualitative research using this kind of data. We appreciated the authors’ blending of a technically more quantitative “content analysis” approach to coding (i.e. categorizing articles by descriptions of opioid users’ race/ethnicity, urban/suburban/rural location, SES, descriptions of criminality vs. humanizing backstories etc.) with a richly-described thematic analysis. This approach enabled the authors to make strong quantitative claims about the prevalence of different media framings for different groups, while reserving the majority of their analysis for a detailed description of the ways in which white drug use in particular is framed as a newsworthy anomaly. The authors’ approach also enabled them to notice the striking absences in their data set: the lack of humanizing explanations for non-white drug use and the total absence of criminalizing discourses in news articles discussing white opioid use.

We felt the analysis section presented a good integration of data from the study (i.e. direct quotes from news articles) with outside sources from the scholarly and policy literature to immediately unpack and interpret the trends they identify in news coverage in their wider context. This made the results feel more robust as they were set in their wider context during their initial presentation rather than waiting until the discussion section. More generally, we appreciated how this paper turned a critical lens on the often unmarked whiteness of suburban/rural opioid users in media discourse, unpacking the racialized hypocrisies of the War on Drugs that continue to lead to the mass incarceration of people of colour, the over-representation of racialized people amongst those dying of overdose and a misplaced focus on interventions that target prescribing practices. We felt this paper illustrated well how dominant narratives about drug use are entwined with narratives of white supremacy (e.g. the erroneous notion that the overdose crisis has primarily impacted white people through unscrupulous doctors over-prescribing), leading to drug policy interventions that are divorced from reality.

This paper made us think about how class and gender also intersect with race in ways that lead to inequitable representations and policy outcomes for marginalized subgroups of people who use drugs. We would like to see a more thorough treatment of these intersecting variables in future work. Nevertheless, we agreed this was an excellent example of the need to explicitly adopt an intersectional perspective when researching drug use and crafting drug policy responses as the opioid overdose crisis, and the War on Drugs more generally, continues to exacerbate racial, class and gender inequality.

Further reading:

  • Daniels J, Netherland JC, Lyons AP. White Women, US Popular Culture, and Narratives of Addiction. Contemporary Drug Problems. 2018 Apr 18:0091450918766914.
  • Hatcher AE, Mendoza S, Hansen H. At the Expense of a Life: Race, Class, and the Meaning of Buprenorphine in Pharmaceuticalized “Care”. Substance use & misuse. 2018 Jan 28;53(2):301-10.
  • Netherland J, Hansen H. White opioids: Pharmaceutical race and the war on drugs that wasn’t. BioSocieties. 2017 Jun 1;12(2):217-38.