The 50th anniversary of President Nixon declaring a war on drugs arrived last month as the United States reached record high numbers of overdose deaths. Tragically, more than 90,000 lives were lost to overdose last year, inflicting enormous harms on people and communities, and especially on communities of color.
We now know that this exercise of executive power was not a genuine effort to reduce harms associated with drug use; it was a racist political ploy intended to criminalize and destroy Black opposition and the anti-war movement. Black people and people of color are disproportionately affected by the repercussions of the war on drugs, a racist system of criminalization amplified by the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations. They face harsher sentences, increased rates of imprisonment, and face greater chances of dying at the hands of law enforcement when stopped for a drug offense. Structural inequities are further reflected by the worsening overdose epidemic during the COVID-19 pandemic. Black and Latinx people who use drugs experienced the greatest devastation, with a 50% observed increases in overdose-related cardiac arrests during this time, the highest of any racial or ethnic group. Mortality may not discriminate, but the risk factors—such as housing circumstances, healthcare access, and socioeconomic status—do when they are shaped by systemic racism.
Vital Strategies’ Overdose Prevention Program believes that ending fatal drug overdoses requires a public health approach that prioritizes care for people who use drugs rather than punishment.
Four experts from the Overdose Prevention Program shared their insights on the past 50 years of the drug war and the future they aim to help build through their work at Vital Strategies.
Daliah Heller, Director, Overdose Prevention Program
Heller emphasizes how a public health approach to drug use can spur critical reform of our current systems and move us toward practices that help people who use drugs.
Dionna King, Program Manager, Overdose Prevention Program
King draws an imperative connection between the investments in the larger prison-industrial complex and subsequent lack of funding for life-saving healthcare services.
Julie Rwan, Senior Technical Advisor, Overdose Prevention Program
Rwan calls out the failures in current drug policies and sheds light on their racist and fatal consequences.
As we look ahead to the next 50 years, we must begin with our current moment. The marches for Black, brown, and Indigenous lives have proven that it is well past time to confront the racist sociopolitical forces that continually wage war on communities of color. Beyond that, it is well past time for systemic change. Adopting a public health approach to overdose prevention gives us a path toward drug policies that no longer punish people for being human.
Learn more about the Overdose Prevent Program’s recent work:
- New project in Michigan seeks community-driven response to drug use and overdose as overdose deaths surge amidst COVID-19
- COVID, drugs, jails, racism and…hope? Five takeaways from our current overdose crisis
- Dismantle the Anti-Black Racism that Drives Criminalization and Death
- Supervised consumption sites prevent overdose and save lives—Vital Strategies and other public health leaders agree
To learn more about the Overdose Prevention Program visit htttps://www.vitalstrategies.org/programs/overdose-prevention/ and follow us on Twitter at @VitalStrat