Professor Revier talks Criminal Justice, War on Drugs During Appearance on Podcast 

By John DeRosier | November 11, 2022

Kevin Revier, assistant professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice,
was recently interviewed for The Social Breakdown podcast to discuss the ongoing war on drugs.   

Revier’s primary research includes drug policy, cultural criminology, critical race theory, media, and restorative and transformative justice.  His current research focuses on the opioid crisis, addiction, and the drug war. 

The Social Breakdown is a podcast published several times a month that covers various sociology topics.

Below is a short Q&A with Revier on the current state of the War on Drugs. You can listen to the full podcast here. 

Where do you think the war on drugs stands now?

This is a complex and difficult question to answer. There has been some softening in how we talk about drugs and a softening on some policy. There is an emphasis on medical aspects of drugs and addiction, and we’re not just saying using drugs or being addicted is a morally bad thing in and of itself. 

There is also a lot of legalization going on for recreational use in many states. Oregon decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms and over twenty states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, which is something I never thought I would see having grown up, even as recently as the 90s.

Joe Biden gave pardons to people convicted of simple marijuana possession on the federal level, although that does not impact state-level marijuana criminalization. He has also asked for a review of marijuana as a Schedule I drug. 

On the other hand, drugs like meth, heroin, crack, and cocaine will probably not be legal any time soon. We still see massive commitments to drug arrests, particularly in low-income areas that have been hit hard by the opioid crisis. So there is still a lot of criminalization. I am cautious of the idea that it has been improving. 

How do people see others who use different kinds of drugs? So, how is a person who smokes marijuana perceived compared with someone who uses cocaine or crack, heroin, LSD etc.?

The history of the drug war is based on associating certain drugs with people of color and other drugs with white people, particularly middle- and upper-class whites. For example, the original opioid crisis in the early 20th century targeted Chinese immigrants for opium use, despite whites being the primary users at the time. 

Crack is still associated with lower-income people and people of color, whereas cocaine is more associated with white people. You still see the ongoing disparity in sentencing between crack and cocaine possession.

So yes, the labeling of certain drugs has a long racial history. Marijuana was originally associated with Mexican immigrants. You can’t really understand a drug in America without looking at racial history in how it’s been classified and enforced. 

Are there changes or differences with the response to this opioid crisis compared to the crack crisis in the 90s?

A big change is that more white people are visibly affected in this opioid crisis, and there have been a lot of overdose deaths in general.

The opioid crisis, in large part, was caused by the pharmaceutical companies that marketed these drugs as non-addictive, like Purdue Pharma and OxyContin. Purdue gave doctors misleading educational material explaining why they should prescribe OxyContin, and insurance companies were more apt to cover pain pills than physical therapy. And because it affected a lot of white people, it became more publicized and cared about. This has publicly ignored overdose rates by people of color, which have been on the rise. 

Some of the medicalized understanding of opioids can even expand the drug war, as I have looked at in my research. There has been more mandated treatment in drug courts, but that doesn’t mean more community-based treatment. It’s all in the criminal justice system; someone has to have a criminal record to access treatment at all, whether through drug court or jail-based treatment. So you still have to have a criminal record to get these forms of treatment. All of this leads to lost opportunities and even deadly consequences. 

How do you think drugs should be regulated and policed?

I’ve thought about this a lot, and the only conclusion to me is that they should be regulated but not criminalized. History has shown that criminalization has exacerbated racist policy and made it difficult for people to safely use drugs,

When drug raids occur by law enforcement, the dealer market shifts and can create unknown potencies for consumers. Cutting drugs with fentanyl can actually be a response to prohibition and market shifts caused from drug sweeps in communities. We saw this with alcohol prohibition. Also, when people are sent to jail, their tolerance lowers. Then if they use the same amount upon release, they are at a higher risk of overdose. It makes sense to want to regulate drugs through the criminal justice system, but it creates a lot of harm. It just doesn’t work.  

There does need to be community-based treatment that doesn’t rely on insurance or income. We also need harm reduction, including safe injection spaces, and Narcan needs to be widely available. We have to support healthcare, housing, food security, education, and all the things that make a community thrive. 

We also cannot always associate drugs with addiction. As humans, we are wired to alter our consciousness; this often does involve drugs. And we often take drugs without really thinking about it. Alcohol is something that, even at the chemical level, can be very harmful. But it’s normalized and just something that we do. Caffeine is a drug. The anxiety from not having coffee in the morning is real.

At the end of the day, I don’t think drugs are inherently bad, but drug policy can certainly lead to bad outcomes – and even overdose death. There have been a lot of moves in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.