Precarious Data: Crack, Opioids, and Visualizing a Drug Abuse Epidemic


In late 2015, two economists studying health-related data inadvertently discovered an alarming trend: death rates for middle-aged, white Americans were dramatically increasing from drug overdoses (Kolata, 2015), particularly opioids (CDC, 2015). The opioid epidemic has since been widely publicized in the media. However, as critics have argued, the government's response to the crack epidemic differs dramatically from an arguably equally devastating œdrug epidemic that hit many inner US cities thirty years ago ”the influx of crack cocaine. More specifically, opioid addicts, who tend to be white, have been positioned as patients, whereas in the 1970s and 80s during the war on drugs, heroin and crack addicts, respectively, who tended to be people of color, were criminalized (Hart, 2017; Hutchinson, 2017).

Objective: I analyze a collection of data visualizations created during the crack and opioid epidemics, respectively, published by mainstream news media using three criteria: genre, subject matter, and language used to describe the graphic. I use precarity as a theoretical framework--that is, a politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death (Butler, 2009, p. 35)--to argue that visualizations created during the crack epidemic positioned addicts as criminals whereas opioid addicts have been positioned as patients in need of treatment.

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Original Publication Year: 
Event/Publication Date: 
January, 2019

June 18, 2019

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