“Is it going to be Kassandra?” There’s a reason that question was asked over and over in harm reduction circles after the departure of Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, the previous executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, was announced at the beginning of the year.
In a series of past roles at DPA*, Kassandra Frederique has earned a reputation as one of the most formidable advocates out there—whether leading street protests, whipping up a conference crowd, lobbying in Albany or speaking out to the media. So to many who know her, it felt like only a matter of time.
Frederique formally took over as leader on September 8. Her Medium post to mark this characteristically framed the work ahead as part of a much wider struggle for racial and social justice.
“To be clear, ending the drug war will always be our focus at DPA,” she wrote, “but as we enter our third decade of work, we must remember that we cannot fight against the drug war as an end unto itself. Rather, our work has to be informed by the layered, intersecting injustices faced by the people and communities we work to support and follow the leadership of those most impacted … At DPA we are going to emphasize this interconnection … We know that piecemeal strategies in the fight for freedom have only left the most vulnerable in our communities behind.”
Filter called Frederique at her home in Manhattan, with DPA’s offices still closed because of COVID-19, to ask about her priorities and get a sense of how the movement might evolve under her leadership. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Helen Redmond: How have Black Lives Matter and the racial justice uprisings of recent months influenced the way you are thinking about drug policy and your immediate priorities for DPA?
Kassandra Frederique: The BLM movement has been super-illuminating for me for a while. It has given me an amazing framework to think about drug policy and it’s influenced the things I’ve pushed at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Many of the issues that the Black Lives Matter movement has put forward are things that Black women in drug policy reform, like Deborah Small, Imani Robinson, Monique Tula and asha bandele, have worked around—racism, mass incarceration and policing pregnancy. Troy Duster in his book, The Legislation of Morality: Law, Drugs, and Moral Judgment, has influenced our drug policy work. He talks about how drug policies are not built on the pharmacology of the drug but are based on assumptions about the user population.
Decriminalization has been a major DPA focus in recent years. Last month your organization came out with a model bill to decriminalize possession, including measures like decarceration and record expungement. Why decriminalization, rather than the full legalization and regulation of all drugs?
We’ve been having a conversation with our international allies about full legalization and regulation of all drugs. Based on marijuana regulation, we need to be super-thoughtful. There are issues with the over-commercialization of cannabis that we are navigating now. We want to be sure that when we advocate for legalization and regulation, we have a clear idea of what the different modes of regulation look like.
The immediate thing we need to do is stop the arrests.
Right now, we’re talking about defunding the police and we see the real dangers of law enforcement dealing with people who use drugs—that just using drugs is an excuse to kill or harass people.
The most immediate thing we can do is decriminalize possession, to really disrupt the role that law enforcement plays in people’s everyday life. Because drug possession is the number one arrest in this country. The immediate thing we need to do is stop the arrests.
You’re a social worker, with an MSW. How has that training, education and experience informed your understanding of drug policy? And can you talk about how social workers are involved in policing the people they work with?
I’m grateful for parts of my social work education because my social work placement was how I got to DPA. I’ll also say my social work experience is what clued me into the fact that criminalization is not just run by the criminal legal system, it’s actually run by the helping professions and institutions. My social work education has been seminal to my understanding that the drug war has been fought outside of courts and prisons, and there are more people who are complicit with the drug war than criminal-legal actors.
I think there is a reckoning that has to happen within the helping professions.
Being a social worker and understanding how the system works, the way social workers use drug testing or use people’s relationships to drugs to gatekeep access to resources, has shaped the way I see who we need to fight and what we need to change in drug policy. Policing is a part of social work. I think the profession needs to be honest about that.
Over the summer when we were having conversations about defunding the police, you had some social workers say, Don’t defund the police, give us more money so we can be in police stations. To me, that is not the right response. I think there is a reckoning that has to happen within the helping professions to see how complicit they are in punishment and criminalization. The relationships they have with the criminal justice system need to be re-examined.
In this conversation around defunding police, people are saying let’s take money out of law enforcement and put it into helping resources. If the same behaviors and principles are going to be held in the systems that we are diverting money to, we are actually not helping people. It’s really important for us to make sure that the underlying principles are shifted to ones that reflect freedom and liberation, and that build sustainable communities.
Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) centers the role of the police in diverting people who use drugs to social services. DPA supports LEAD. Given the calls to remove police from contact with vulnerable populations, will DPA’s position on LEAD change?
DPA has always believed that law enforcement should not be the access point for treatment. There was a split in our organization for many years, where we had conversations about why it was inappropriate to have law enforcement to be the access point for treatment. It’s something we’ve always struggled with.
I think at the time when LEAD was put forward, it was something that we saw as an immediate short-term solution to get people the services that they needed. But going forward, we’re going to push for people who use drugs to be able to access support outside of the criminal-legal system. We always thought LEAD was a short-term response. It’s the same position we’ve had with drug courts: DPA doesn’t believe in drug courts, it’s not the way people should get support.
The War on Drugs is now targeting people who vape nicotine. Across the country, bans have been passed that severely restrict access to harm reduction products, when smoking kills more people than all other drugs combined. Yet most organizations in this field have not centered tobacco harm reduction. What is DPA’s position on nicotine and vape bans? And are there plans to work more on this issue?
Prohibition isn’t an effective way to deal with drugs. It doesn’t work. Vaping is something that can be helpful for some people. A lot of the tactics that have been used around illicit substances are being used around vaping. We have clarity about how similar they are. And we see stigma against people who continue to smoke cigarettes.
There are real concerns about the tobacco industry; it hasn’t always been forthright. At DPA we are having conversations about tobacco control and all drug regulation. We think it’s important. But there are a lot of drug wars to work on.
California just passed a ban on menthol cigarettes, which are disproportionately smoked by Black people. The Black community is divided on this issue: Some argue it’s about saving Black lives; others, like Rev. Al Sharpton, say that enforcement will be racist, an illicit market will be created and it provides another opportunity for police to harass or kill Black people. Eric Garner was murdered after selling loosies. What is your take?
Again, I think prohibition is not effective. We can’t ignore the role of tobacco marketing and the harm that menthol cigarettes have caused, disproportionately in the Black community. We need to talk about the healthcare structures we need to invest in and the harm reduction strategies that we need to be putting in place.
What we know is that bringing criminalization into it makes everyone less safe.
I find that the conversation around menthol cigarettes is very binary. You either support it or you don’t. What we know about the drug war in general is that there is a lot more room in the middle to innovate and save lives. Through education and alternatives, there are going to be people who stop smoking menthol cigarettes and there will be people who won’t stop. What we know is that bringing criminalization into it makes everyone less safe.
You appeared in Grass is Greener, the superb 2019 documentary about the racist, xenophobic history of US cannabis policy by hip hop legend (and vaper!) Fab Five Freddy. What was it like to be involved in that?
It was great. Fab Five Freddy is such a smart, innovative thinker. He’s so much more than a lot of people give him credit for. He’s an artist that I deeply respect. The opportunity to speak with other drug policy reformers in the Grass is Greener documentary was an incredible one.
Fab came to the DPA conference in 2019 and he was pretty interested to learn about tobacco harm reduction and broader harm reduction. I’m really looking forward to growing our relationship and getting him to be not just a marijuana reformer, but an all-encompassing drug policy reformer.
What most inspires you to do this work?
I get inspired every time someone realizes that there is room for them in this work. Every time someone comes on board to end the drug war, it fuels me. I think about the person who has their own history with drugs, or a loved one who experienced the drug war, and them realizing that what happened to them is a result of intentional decisions. When a child of a person who uses drugs gets to think of their parent as more than a demonized parent who used drugs, it reminds me that we can do this. When that light goes on, the drum beat in my head gets louder.
The drug war has seeped into our hearts as much as it has contaminated the world.
Building the team to end the drug war and find our way forward with alternative visions is possible and within reach. The drug war has seeped into our hearts as much as it has contaminated the world. So every time we break that mental model and shift someone over to our side, I get this scintillating feeling. I chase that feeling because it motivates me, inspires me, and reinforces that we can get more people—which is great, because we need them.
*DPA has previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.
Photograph of Frederique courtesy of DPA.