Over the past two decades, communities across the United States have been struggling with the overdose crisis. To date, overdose has been widely perceived to primarily affect white communities, yet, Black communities are increasingly and disproportionately affected by this ever-growing crisis. From 2015 to 2020, fatal overdose deaths rose 144% among Black women and 213% among Black men.
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Despite these staggering statistics, Black people who use drugs often do not receive equitable access to quality healthcare or harm reduction resources such as naloxone for overdose reversal, medications for opioid use disorder, and syringe service programs for safer drug use. Moreover, the decades-long drug war has led to the mass incarceration of Black people arrested for drug-related offenses. Even though white and Black people use and sell drugs at similar rates, Black people are ten times more likely to be arrested because of current policing practices.
Harm reduction strategies and interventions prioritize health and safety of people who use drugs, offering care and support rather than criminalization. Black leaders have always been at the forefront of the harm reduction movement, advocating for progressive drug policies centering racial equity, addressing structural racism in healthcare, and demanding an end to mass incarceration.
Here are five Black harm reductionists who are paving the way:
As the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Kassandra Frederique is building national campaigns surrounding drug policy reform and the overdose crisis, specifically through the lens of racial justice. Frederique is a powerful advocate at the forefront of the movement to abolish the drug war and mass incarceration. Among other efforts, Frederique played a key role in Oregon’s historic initiative to decriminalize drugs, and in New York’s opening of overdose prevention centers. In this keynote speech given at Morgan State University, Frederique explains how the drug war fuels the criminalization and mass incarceration of Black and Latinx people.
Reverend Dr. Charles Boyer
Reverend Dr. Charles Boyer is the founding director of Salvation and Social Justice, a faith-rooted organization focused on the liberation of Black communities by ending the drug war and decarceration. Boyer and his organization co-launched the Make the Right C.A.L.L. (Community Alternatives Leading to Liberation), a campaign working to address overinvestment in law enforcement and to reallocate resources to community-led interventions in New Jersey communities. “The emphasis on the ‘War on Drugs’ and the dehumanization of people experiencing drug use or mental health-related issues is harmful and often deadly, as police presence can escalate a situation when empathy and resources would be more effective,” Boyer wrote in an op-ed. In this moderated discussion presented at SXSW 2021, Boyer speaks about drug decriminalization and racial justice.
As the Senior Vice President of Policy Advocacy at the Legal Action Center, Tracie Gardner focuses on the areas of criminal justice reform, substance use, racial equity in harm reduction, and HIV/AIDS policy. Gardner also helped establish the Black Harm Reduction Network which is currently housed at the Legal Action Center. She has over 30 years of experience in both the public policy and not-for-profit fields, leading initiatives that address the health disparities in Black and Latinx communities. In this moderated discussion hosted by Vital Strategies, Gardner speaks with Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, Professor of Medicine and Associate Chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine, about public health approaches to the current opioid crisis.
As the Ziff Professor of Psychology in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at Columbia University, Dr. Carl Hart is a leading researcher of neuroscience, psychoactive drugs, and neuropsychopharmacology, the study of the action of drugs on the central nervous system and their consequent effects on mind and behavior. Hart has written for numerous outlets—and authored a number of books—about the latest scientific findings surrounding addiction and recreational drug use, the ongoing impact of racist drug policies, and the legalization of drugs. “As with previous ‘drug crises,’ the opioid problem is not really about opioids. It’s mainly about cultural, social, and environmental factors such as racism, draconian drug laws, and diverting attention away from the real causes of crime and suffering,” wrote Hart in his latest book Drug Use for Grown-Ups.
Dr. Chinazo Cunningham
As a physician and researcher with over two decades of experience, Dr. Chinazo Cunningham is considered a pioneer in the healthcare field, “providing care, developing programs, and conducting research focused on marginalized populations, including people who use drugs with or at-risk for HIV infection.” Cunningham has trained hundreds of physicians on how to incorporate buprenorphine into their primary care practices. She previously worked as a professor and faculty member at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and later served as the Executive Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She is currently the Commissioner of The New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS), one of the largest substance use disorder systems of care in the US.
“We cannot talk about Black health and wellness without talking about addiction prevention, treatment, recovery and harm reduction,” Cunningham recently shared on Twitter.