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Vital Stories

SXSW 2021: Building Compassion, Justice and Harm Reduction Through Decriminalization

By Susie Poore, Vital Strategies Overdose Prevention Program Intern

For over a year, our lives have been defined by an ongoing global pandemic and worldwide marches for racial justice. The gravity of these factors only increases when put in context of the overdose crisis, which reached a record high of more than 93,000 lives lost in 2020. We are at a critical intersection. As shown by the historic drug decriminalization initiative in Oregon and the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to racial equity and harm reduction, we may finally be moving toward justice. This was the backdrop for the panel hosted by Vital Strategies’ Overdose Prevention Program at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2021. “Decriminalize Drugs to Reduce Harm and Build Justice” featured leaders in public health, harm reduction, faith, and criminal justice to discuss the importance of adopting a public health response to drug use, why this approach is necessary, and how we can get there.  

Daliah Heller, Director of  Drug Use Initiatives at Vital Strategies, served as the moderator. Heller first grounded the conversation by naming the urgency and timeliness of decriminalization, as well as the need for embracing a public health approach after 50 years of the racist War on Drugs: “Because we treat drug use like a crime, it’s much more difficult to actually prevent overdose. Criminalization shapes moralism and stigma against drug use, making drug use risky and increasingly lethal. Overdose is just a tragic consequence of criminalization.” She then posed two significant questions. Here’s what the panelists had to say. 

Why do we need to decriminalize drugs in order to reduce harms and build towards justice?  

Rev. Charles Boyer, Founding Director of  Salvation and Social Justice, a non-partisan Black faith-rooted organization, recognized how Black bodies are subjugated and commodified by the drug war. He underscored that slavery has never been abolished in the United States; it’s only been reimagined by the criminal justice system. With a faith based in abolition, Rev. Boyer believes abolishing the drug war is necessary for confronting stigma and recognizing people’s humanity. 

Kurt August, Assistant Director of  Diversion and Deflection at City of Philadelphia, discussed the multifaceted harms caused by the criminalization of drug use. Our society’s racist, punitive approach fails people who use drugs because the criminal justice system amplifies social inequities. It is especially devastating for communities of color since they are most targeted by punitive drug laws. For August, who promotes a harm reduction approach to drug use through alternatives to incarceration at the City of Philadelphia, decriminalization is a critical tool for stemming mass incarceration.   

Teresa Springer, Director of Programs at Wellness Services and a harm reduction advocate, views decriminalization as a means for healing from the traumas inflicted upon Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies through years of incarceration and dehumanization. She notably pointed out that both people who use drugs and people who sell drugs should be included in the conversation on drug decriminalization. Springer further defines decriminalization as moving dollars from systems of harm to systems of care and compassion. 

For the people watching, what’s one thing they can do to move us towards the shift that, as you’ve all laid out, very clearly needs to happen? 

Rev. Boyer: “It’s really critical that we build movements that are led by the folks who have been most impacted by the drug war. Folks who have the visceral, existential experience of feeling the depth of the harm are the ones who are best equipped to define what the healing should look like.” 

August: “We need more of an emphasis on meeting people where they’re at, addressing their needs and what feels like help to them in real time, and trying to offer them a more realistic outlet to support in the community.” 

Springer: “The more of us that learn about harm reduction approaches, that learn about compassion, that learn about these tools of dignity and love can really get at things…we can use our voice to create change. The more of us that want drug decriminalization…we’ll get it.”  

To learn more about the Overdose Prevention Program, visit htttps:// and follow us on Twitter @VitalStrat