Context: The opioid epidemic is a major US public health crisis. Its scope prompted significant public outreach, but this response triggered a series of journalistic articles comparing the opioid epidemic to the crack cocaine epidemic. Some authors claimed that the political response to the crack cocaine epidemic was criminal justice rather than medical in nature, motivated by divergent racial demographics.

Methods: We examine these assertions by analyzing the language used in relevant newspaper articles. Using a national sample, we compare word frequencies from articles about crack cocaine in 1988–89 and opioids in 2016–17 to evaluate media framings. We also examine articles about methamphetamines in 1992–93 and heroin throughout the three eras to distinguish between narratives used to describe the crack cocaine and opioid epidemics.

Findings: We find support for critics' hypotheses about the differential framing of the two epidemics: articles on the opioid epidemic are likelier to use medical terminology than criminal justice terminology while the reverse is true for crack cocaine articles.

Conclusions: Our analysis suggests that race and legality may influence policy responses to substance-use epidemics. Comparisons also suggest that the evolution of the media narrative on substance use cannot alone account for the divergence in framing between the two epidemics.

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