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How opioid treatment centers can overcome bipartisan NIMBYism to build local support

Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, Harvard Kennedy School and Michael Hankinson, George Washington University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

Some residents of Fairmount, an upper-middle-income neighborhood of Philadelphia, are irate that a nearby homeless shelter is being turned into an addiction “triage” center without input from the surrounding community. News of the shelter’s expansion came just a week before the high-profile closing of an encampment of people experiencing homelessness and addiction in Kensington, a North Philadelphia neighborhood that has long been the center of the region’s opioid crisis.

Neighbors quickly started a petition to halt the triage center project, and they garnered over 1,100 signatures. At a contentious community meeting, they expressed fears of their neighborhood becoming “Kensington 2.0.”

As professors of political science and public policy, we have studied public opinion about opioid treatment policies in the U.S. Our research shows that while Americans acknowledge the general need for opioid addiction treatment facilities, they don’t like these services to be located near where they live. This “not in my backyard” – or NIMBY – opposition is true for people across the ideological spectrum.

We have also found that whether people support expanded opioid treatment policy spending or not can depend on whether they share a racial identity with the people they see might benefit from that policy.

We conducted a series of experiments and gathered survey data from both urban and rural respondents across the country to understand how both of these dynamics shape opposition to opioid treatment policies.

In one experiment, we asked both white and Black respondents to read a media profile of someone struggling with opioid addiction. We randomly varied aspects of the profiled individual’s identity, including whether they were white or Black, male or female, or lived in an urban, suburban or rural area.

 

We found that both white and Black respondents were more supportive of funding treatment programs after reading a profile about someone who shared their racial identity. We did not find similar effects based on shared gender or geography.

Our findings, published in the March 2024 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Political Behavior, suggest that race remains a dominant cleavage in shaping public attitudes toward opioid policy.

As a result, the way that media outlets depict people struggling with addiction could affect support for these policies. For example, evidence increasingly shows that overdose rates among Black Americans are rising faster than rates among white Americans, which could lead to a decrease in public support for opioid treatment policies among white Americans. Media coverage that emphasizes how the opioid crisis affects both white and Black communities may avoid this backlash.

In addition to race, our research shows an individual’s income and how opioid treatment policies are funded also affect people’s support.

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