Justice  /  Antecedent

Heroin And Chocolate City: Black Community Responses To Drug Addiction In The Nation’s Capital

As early at 1955, government reports indicated that DC’s emerging drug problem represented “a serious and tragic and expensive and ominous” development.

Heroin’s grasp on urban America, and especially the nation’s capital, throttled the nation. For years, the situation festered before emerging as an epidemic in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The federal government’s reaction proved slow, and in the District of Columbia, well before the national government addressed the growing problem, Black Washingtonians attempted to resolve, or at least mitigate, heroin’s destructive spread. The Black community responded to the epidemic in several ways. For example, RAP Inc., located in the city, had created a therapeutic community based on drug abstinence in 1970, and the Nation of Islam, having an established presence at Lorton Penitentiary in Virginia, worked with inmates to promote Islam while using religion to help addicts end their drug use.[8] However, Colonel Hassan Jeru-Ahmed and his Blackman’s Liberation Volunteer Army and the Blackman’s Developmental Center (BDC) emerged as both one of the earliest and most prominent actors, collaborating with federal and local officials to address heroin addiction for the city’s Black community and, eventually, its suburban white counterparts.

Equally important, the BDC was one of vanishingly few drug addiction treatment centers for inner city residents in the nation. Despite a 200 percent increase in the number of treatment programs since 1968-69, a National Urban League report on drug addiction programs found that nearly half the cities in its twenty-city study lacked even one drug treatment program for inner city residents. Moreover, the same number of cities lacked drug education and prevention programs altogether.[9]

Richard Nixon had always hoped to use Washington, DC, as a laboratory for his policies. On the campaign trail, he lamented the city’s struggles with crime and freely deployed law-and-order rhetoric.[10] During his first year in office, he reorganized the city’s courts, appointed new judges, and expanded the police force. In the late 1960s, the city still lacked the power to govern itself; the federal government controlled most aspects of DC’s political life. Not until 1973, with the passage of the Home Rule Act, did residents begin to gain some control over their political fates, though even then it was severely restrained.

While Nixon reorganized the city’s jurisprudence and law enforcement, Senator Joseph Tydings held congressional hearings on the issue of drug abuse, and by February 1970, the government had established the Narcotic Treatment Administration (NTA) under the direction of Dr. Robert DuPont. Within only a few months of its establishment, the NTA was treating 1,500 patients, most receiving methadone or detox as outpatients. Two years later, the NTA operated thirteen outpatient and three inpatient facilities.[11]