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New project in Michigan seeks community-driven response to drug use and overdose as overdose deaths surge amid COVID-19

Michigan Liberation and Vital Strategies launch “Care, Not Criminalization” listening sessions in Macomb, Wayne, and Oakland counties

April 7, 2021 (Detroit, MI) – As overdose continues to devastate Michigan communities, Michigan Liberation and Vital Strategies announced the launch of a new project, “Care, Not Criminalization,” which aims to identify and develop community-driven responses to drug use and overdose in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne Counties. Over the coming months, community navigators will hit the streets to engage with community members on what they’d like to see as an alternative to mass criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs and who are at risk of overdose. The project builds upon Michigan Liberation’s track record of deep community engagement and effective campaign development, including the organization’s Vision for a Liberated Michigan.

Michigan was estimated to have over 2,300 overdose deaths in 2019 and recent data suggest that COVID-19 has caused a surge of overdoses in the state alongside continuing racial disparities in rates of opioid overdose. At the same time, there is growing urgency to develop alternatives to a status quo in which policing and prisons are often the first-line response to people who struggle with substance use or mental illness. Police are often ill equipped to respond to health and social problems like substance use disorder and overdose–communities can help devise alternatives that are grounded in compassion, harm reduction, and health promotion. Especially as COVID-19, overdose, and criminalization combine to inflict particular harm on communities of color, Michigan Liberation’s centering of those most impacted by the criminal legal system is essential. 

“Michigan Liberation believes in care, not criminalization,” said Anthony Boyd, Program Manager at Michigan Liberation. “Our work with Vital Strategies allows us to continue to build deep relationships with people who have been impacted by mental health, addiction, and incarceration.  We are excited to lift up the voice of those we meet and bring long needed change to our cities, counties, and state.”

As part of Care, Not Criminalization, Michigan Liberation hired 16 community navigators to lead community listening sessions in Macomb, Wayne, and Oakland counties. To prepare for the listening sessions, navigators underwent a robust series of training on facilitation, harm reduction, and how to effectively engage with people who use drugs. Listening sessions will get underway in May 2021 and culminate in a set of policy recommendations later this summer.

“The overdose crisis that we face today is the natural result of decades of criminalization and the punishment and exclusion of people who use drugs, which have particularly targeted and harmed Black people and other communities of color,” said Kate Boulton, Legal Technical Advisor at Vital Strategies. “Our partnership with Michigan Liberation aims to reimagine our approach to drug use and overdose so that it centers health, community, and support rather than policing and punishment.”

About Michigan Liberation

Michigan Liberation is organizing to end the criminalization of Black families and communities of color in Michigan. We envision a transformation of our criminal justice system that will no longer produce mass incarceration or mass policing. We envision a state with the best public education in the nation, single payer healthcare which includes excellent mental health and healing services and thriving Black and Brown communities. Michigan Liberation conducts grassroots organizing, lobbying and supports candidates that share our vision for Michigan. For more information visit

About Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. The organization works with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Vital Strategies’ goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible. For more information visit

About Vital Strategies’ Overdose Prevention Program 

In November 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $50 million investment to address the country’s overdose crisis. The initiative—a first-of-its-kind partnership between Vital Strategies, Pew Charitable Trusts, CDC Foundation, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health—is helping up to 10 states implement solutions over three years to strengthen and scale up evidence-based, data-driven interventions to reduce risks of overdose and save lives.

Media Contacts: 
Marjon Parham, PR Manager, Michigan Liberation,, 248-878-9302
Tony Newman, Director of Communication, Vital Strategies,, 646-335-5384