Many Americans may imagine that heavy drug use belongs to a disenfranchised group of people living in poor, dangerous neighborhoods. This indeed may have been the case when it came to heroin addiction for many years — and during the time that the government’s War on Drugs was launched — but today the reality is completely different, with most heroin abusers being white, middle-class young people. A new video from the Retro Report examines how the U.S. heroin epidemic evolved over the course of 40 years. The War on Drugs, started in the 1970s, ineffectively sought to stamp out drug use by throwing people in jail.

“The politics said let’s get tough,” Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore, said in the video. “The tougher you are, the more politically viable you’re going to be, and that was more police, more prisons, longer sentences.”

Schmoke was perhaps one of the few leaders who chose to challenge the War on Drugs mentality. In 1988, he began openly challenging the “lock them up” approach, the video states, as it was wasting millions of resources. Jails across the country were mainly filled with young African-American males who had been arrested for non-violent, drug-related crimes.

“The heroin problem was still perceived as an inner city problem, and to some people just a problem of people of color,” Schmoke said in the video. “So you have all these representatives from districts that view the problem as those people, not our people.”

As a result, lawmakers focused on cracking down on drug abusers rather than treating the addicts as people or solving the root of the problem. What’s fascinating is that the heroin epidemic has in fact largely declined on its own, due to the fact that drug epidemics have a natural burnout over time.

“Drug epidemics often burn themselves out rather quickly,” Samuel Robert, a historian at Columbia University, said in the video. “Younger siblings and cousins and peers — people who witnessed it from a very close hand take note. By the time you are of age to really think about that type of experimentation, you’ve already seen negative consequences.”

Indeed, the heroin epidemic (and the AIDS epidemic that was occurring alongside drug abuse due to shared needles) had largely declined by the time many of these laws came into place. And since then, the heroin epidemic had moved onto its next target — white, middle class people who also had access to painkillers and got hooked at a young age. It wasn’t until then that lawmakers began to sense heroin abuse hit closer to home, and slowly started coming around to the idea that addiction needs to be treated and not jailed. Watch the video to learn more about heroin’s history in the U.S.