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Vital Stories

50 Years of the War on Drugs: Vital Experts Explain Stigma, Racial Justice and the Need for a Public Health Approach to Ending Overdose  

By Susie Poore, Vital Strategies Overdose Prevention Program Intern

Vital Strategies

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.  

Esther Mae Rosner, Program Officer, Overdose Prevention Program  

Rosner discusses the real-life effects of weaponizing stigma and how it can lead to the devaluing of lives.   

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: 

To learn more about the Overdose Prevention Program visit htttps://www.vitalstrategies.org/programs/overdose-prevention/ and follow us on Twitter at @VitalStrat