Three Takeaways From a Key Gathering of Health Justice Advocates

April 4, 2019

On April 3, criminal justice reform activists, harm reductionists, policymakers, service providers and clinicians gathered in an auditorium at New York’s Columbia University for the “No Health=No Justice” convening, organized by the Legal Action Center.

The day of panels shared important insights into, and strategies for addressing, the way health justice must include dismantling systemic racism and white supremacy, criminalization and incarceration.

Filter was there, and here are three key points raised at the event:

1. Drug policy reform can’t stop with just medicalizing drug use.

The harm reduction movement has developed something of a mantra: “Drug use is a public health issue.” While that is true, scholars and advocates at the event urged the audience to expand that analysis to include a structural critique that accounts for white supremacy and capitalism.

“We have to acknowledge that these drugs [like naloxone and burprenorphine] will save lives, but they are not enough,” said Dr. Mary T. Bassett, director of the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.

Keith Brown, Katal Center‘s Health and Harm Reduction program director, noted how institutions that in other ways support the conditions that fuel inequalities have draped themselves in the language of harm reduction, without adopting its call for structural transformation: “We have to be careful about equating ‘public health’ with ‘equitable’ [responses to the the overdose crisis].”


2. White supremacy has long driven drug policy that incarcerates and abandons communities of color. With the opioid-involved overdose crisis, white Americans are now also paying the price.

The 21st century overdose crisis is not the first the United States has seen. The previous one ravaged the black community in the 1970s. Yet, as Kassandra Frederique, Drug Policy Alliance’s New York State director, argued, whiteness blinded policymakers from the need to act.

Now, given the visibility of white overdose victims, New York has mobilized non-punitive resources for people who use drugs. Yet Frederique pointed out that the preoccupation with the safety of white children as cannabis is on track to be legalized in New York continues to overlook how children of color are constantly violated by the drug-war laws. “White suburban moms ask me what happens to their kids when cannabis is legalized,” she said. “But that is at the same time when four black middle-school girls were strip-searched because the school nurse thought they were high.”

Frederique also reminded the audience that ending punitive drug policy does not just benefit communities of color; the same goes for white people. “We need white policymakers to recognize how their health is tied up with health justice. They can’t just think they’re doing black communities a favor. Their liberation is tied up with ours.”

3. The radical transformation of how society treats people who use drugs ultimately requires the removal of law enforcement from the harm reduction equation.

As harm reduction tools, like naloxone, and strategies, like pre-trial diversion, are diffused across the country, law enforcement has absorbed these tactics and adapted policing strategies to work with them.

But Frederique pointed out that—even though such incremental reforms are needed—the end goal for ensuring everyone who uses drugs agency and self-determination cannot include cops. “Why do we have to divert people? Why can’t we just leave them alone?”

Photograph: Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard

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