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Arizona's Anti-Immigrant Panic Masks a White Drug Abuse Crisis

What does a drug abuse epidemic have to do with angry political attacks against immigrants and minorities? Everything, concludes a new CJCJ study detailing key facts so far missing from debate over Arizona's draconian anti-immigrant law.

The study analyzes recent figures documenting that drug abuse has become a deadlier crisis in Arizona than almost anywhere else--worse, even, than California's formidable drug woes. After a tripling in drug death rates over the last two decades, overdose of illicit drugs now is the leading cause of non-natural death in Arizona, outranking even traffic crashes and guns. The 100,000 people treated in Phoenix-area hospitals for overdoses of illicit drugs over the last decade testify to the steadily rising epidemic.

Drugs indeed are a big political issue in Arizona--but only when officials and the press can blame illegal immigrants. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has recklessly charged that most of the state's estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants are involved in drug trafficking.

However, the hidden 800-pound gorilla in the debate that state crime, health, and injury statistics reveal is that Arizona's biggest, most rapidly rising drug crisis is centered in White (European origin) residents. In fact, Arizona's Hispanics (both legal and illegal) show declining rates of illicit-drug death, hospitalization, and arrest.

Arizona's virulent anti-immigrant crusade has all the markers of yet another anti-drug panic American politicians, interest groups, and media historically have ignited against feared minority groups to divert attention from disturbingly widespread drug abuse among "respectable," mainstream populations--especially when drug crises accompany tough economic times. America's history of ugly, racist "anti-drug" crusades include official and mob attacks on Chinese "opium dens" in the late 1800s to avoid confronting middle America's epidemic of patent-medicine addiction; pre-Prohibition vilifications of Catholic immigrants for alcohol and Black men for cocaine; 1930s fear campaigns against Mexican and African American "marihuana fiends" to avoid facing the surge in drinking problems surrounding Prohibition; popular demonization of urban, ethnic "junkies" in the 1950s and '60s to obscure skyrocketing suburban prescription barbiturate addiction... and on and on.

CJCJ's latest study concludes that Arizona residents' unadmitted crisis of widespread drug abuse is a major factor underlying the state's displaced fury and punitive legislation against immigrants. Drug abuse deaths in Arizona have rocketed upward by 450% since 1990, reaching levels in 2008 well above the national average. Even after Arizona's Vital Statistician released revised health statistics showing the state's drug death toll is much higher than previously reported, state officials (like those elsewhere) seem unable to admit the enormity of their drug abuse epidemic.

Arizona Department of Health Services, Arizona Department of Public Safety, and Drug Abuse Warning Network figures clearly document that Arizona's drug crisis is not imposed by invading Hispanics, but is distinctly homegrown and White. The statistics are startling. Non-Hispanic White residents, less than 60% of the state's population, account for 81% of Arizona's increase in illicit drug deaths since 1990 and 80% of its total drug deaths today.

In a trend that surely arouses visceral anxiety (especially when fed by sensational rumors illegal-drug traffickers gunning down Whites), non-natural deaths have soared especially rapidly--up 175% by number and 50% by rate since 1990--among Arizona Whites age 40-59. Non-natural death rates among the state's dominant, generally affluent White middle-agers now are considerably higher than for nonwhite races, whose death rates have fallen. However, the reason for surging mortality among Arizona's midlife Whites isn't murder, which actually has plummeted, but Whites' own skyrocketing drug abuse.

Deaths are only the iceberg-tip of Arizona's drug debacle. In 2008, a record 12,000 people were treated in Phoenix-area hospital emergency rooms for overdoses of illicit drugs. The drug overdose treatment toll has risen rapidly among Whites over the last decade while falling among Hispanics. In the early 1990s, Whites and Hispanics had similar rates of drug overdose death and hospitalization; by 2008, White rates had soared to nearly 3 times those of Hispanics for drug-related emergency cases and 4 times higher for drug overdose fatality. In tandem, Arizona law enforcement figures through 2009 show that Hispanics comprise a declining share of those arrested for drug offenses.

Add up Arizona's trends, and a surprising reality emerges: the large influx of Hispanics actually has brought lower drug abuse and crime trends to a state whose residents' drug troubles are rising.

Disconcerting developments like Arizona's lead craven politicians and interests to cast about for easy scapegoats. Thus, whether due to cynical calculation or mindless, tribal-gut racism, leading political and media figures in Arizona and nationally have diverted frustrations over the difficult economy and the visceral fear surrounding Arizona's very real drug crisis afflicting White residents into angry rhetoric and harsh policies against Hispanic immigrants. The dangers of yet another round of racial scapegoating and failure to address America's debilitating drug abuse epidemic require vigorous pushback if we are to avoid repeating disastrous historical demagoguery.

For the full study, go to:  Scapegoating Immigrants: Arizona's Real Crisis Is Rooted in State Residents' Soaring Drug Abuse

Keywords: Arizona, crime trends, immigration, Mike Males, substance use

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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