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New Project To Equitably Enforce Anti-Discrimination Protections and Promote Rights of People Who Use Drugs

People who use drugs face discrimination when it comes to housing, healthcare, medications and more, contributing to overdose crisis.

June 23, 2022 (New York)—More than 107,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, with deaths rising fastest in Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. Decades of stigma have led to continued and widespread discrimination against people who use drugs, hampering efforts to reverse these trends. To address this fundamental problem, the Vital Strategies Overdose Prevention Program and the Legal Action Center together have launched a new multi-year project that will uphold and advance the legal rights of people who use drugs to access the full continuum of evidence-based, life-saving services.

“The unfortunate reality is that the Legal Action Center (LAC) routinely hears from individuals across the country who are denied critical care at skilled nursing facilities, recovery homes, hospitals, and other health care settings because they take medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) or because of stigma based on their drug use,” said Sally Friedman, the Legal Action Center’s Senior Vice President of Legal Advocacy. “Amidst rising overdose rates, we cannot allow this discrimination to persist. The Legal Action Center is committed to using civil rights laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Fair Housing Act, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to bring litigation that sets important legal precedents safeguarding the rights of people who use drugs and/or have substance use disorders, to get essential health care. Access to care, including harm reduction services like syringe service programs, is critical to addressing the national addiction and overdose crisis and building a healthier, more equitable nation.” 

As part of the partnership, the Legal Action Center will develop Know Your Rights and other educational materials for directly impacted communities, leverage legal strategies and litigation to challenge the discriminatory denial of care or services to people who use drugs, and engage with federal and state agencies to remove discriminatory barriers to care. The project will focus on areas ranging from legal restrictions on harm reduction services such as syringe service programs, to the denial of life-saving medications to treat opioid use disorder (MOUD) such as methadone and buprenorphine in various settings, to the failure of hospital emergency departments to implement evidence-based practices for people with substance use-related emergencies. 

“Federal civil rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provide critical anti-discrimination protections to ensure people who use drugs can access health care and supportive services,” said Kate Boulton, Senior Legal Technical Advisor at Vital Strategies. “Yet there are few legal decisions bearing on the rights of people who currently use drugs across key settings such as hospitals or recovery homes. Even fewer decisions address how stigma-driven restrictions on harm reduction services like syringe service programs can violate federal anti-discrimination laws. We are proud to partner with the Legal Action Center to reduce discrimination and increase access to harm reduction, treatment, and recovery supports for people who use drugs. By expanding legal precedent and catalyzing federal and state policy change, this new effort will help save lives and address the escalating overdose crisis devastating our nation.” 

The collaboration between the Legal Action Center and Vital Strategies’ Overdose Prevention Program will focus on opportunities to advance the rights of people who use drugs in seven states—Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The partnership builds on critical momentum to address discrimination against people with opioid use disorder, including recent enforcement actions by the United States Department of Justice and the Legal Action Center’s seminal work to increase access to MOUD in criminal legal settings.  

About Vital Strategies’ Overdose Prevention Program    

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. In November 2021, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a five-year, $120 million investment to help combat the overdose crisis in the hard-hit states of Kentucky, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Wisconsin. The initiative builds on work of the past three years in Michigan and Pennsylvania, launched in 2018 with $50 million and expands the work to promote improved federal policies. The partnership between Vital Strategies, Pew Charitable Trusts, Johns Hopkins University, CDC Foundation, and Global Health Advocacy Incubator is helping to strengthen and scale up evidence-based, data-driven policies and interventions to reduce overdose risks and save lives.   

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About Legal Action Center 

The Legal Action Center (LAC) uses legal and policy strategies to fight discrimination, build health equity, and restore opportunity for people with arrest and conviction records, substance use disorders, and HIV or AIDS. LAC seeks to end punitive responses to health conditions like addiction, mental illness, and HIV or AIDS, and to create equitable access to affordable, quality treatment. We envision a society that upholds the civil rights of all individuals, regardless of their history of justice involvement or medical condition—and we aim to dismantle the historic and persistent impact of systemic racism that has fueled mass incarceration and disparate community health systems. 

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Media contacts:

Tony Newman, Vital Strategies: 646-335-5384 email:
Arianne Keegan, Legal Action Center: 212-243-1313 x 148 email: