Skip to content ↓
Press Room

Vital Strategies at SXSW: Decriminalize Drugs to Reduce Overdose Deaths & Build Racial Justice

Vital Strategies at SXSW: Decriminalize Drugs to Reduce Overdose Deaths & Build Racial Justice 

Public Health, Faith, Harm Reduction, and Criminal Justice Leaders to convene on 3/18 to advocate for the end of racist criminalization of people who use drugs  

March 15, 2021 (New York, USA) – In a year underscored by a pandemic, a reckoning on racial justice, and a landmark ballot initiative in Oregon to decriminalize drugs statewide, Vital Strategies announced today that its Overdose Prevention program will be featured during South by Southwest (SXSW), providing an influential platform to urge policymakers and advocates to end the criminalization of drugs and invest in a public health response to save lives. The panel, Decriminalize Drugs to Reduce Harm and Build Justice will bring together public health, faith, harm reduction, and criminal justice professionals  to outline why this approach is necessary, and how we can get there. 

Decriminalize Drugs to Reduce Harm and Build Justice,” will take place as part of SXSW’s New Urgency track, March 18th, 2021 at 3pm CST / 4 pm EST. Leaders working to decriminalize drug use on the panel include: 

·         Daliah Heller, Director of Drug Use Initiatives at Vital Strategies 

·         Rev. Charles Boyer, Founding Director Salvation and Social Justice.  

·         Kurt August, Assistant Director of Diversion and Deflection at City of Philadelphia 

·         Teresa Springer, Director of Programs at Wellness Services  

“We’re losing more than 200 people to overdose death every day in this country,” said Daliah Heller, Director of Drug Use Initiatives at Vital Strategies. “Every overdose is preventable, but stigma, moralism, and criminalization are responsible for today’s overdose crisis. By decriminalizing all drug use and investing in wellness, we can once and for all leave behind the failed punitive approaches and move towards a healthier, more just future.”  

As a public health organization, Vital Strategies recognizes the enormous importance of addressing drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one. The work of Heller’s team at Vital Strategies is guided by four principles: end punitive criminalization, support harm reduction, center racial justice, and ensure health equity.  

“As with so many issues facing our society, the criminalization of drug use disproportionately impacts Black, Latinx and communities of color,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, the Founding Director of Salvation and Social Justice, a public policy and advocacy group. “Despite similar rates of drug use across racial-ethnic lines, for decades, this criminalization has been used as a weapon against Black and brown communities interrupting futures with disproportionately high rates of incarceration and child removal. Decriminalizing drug use will allow us to build a safer future for all that centers racial justice.” 

Amid the worst US overdose epidemic in history, which claimed more than 80,000 lives last year and has risen sharply during the pandemic, the need for a new approach is increasingly urgent. The panel discussion will explore how this overdose crisis is driven by punitive policies, racism, stigma and misconception. Panelists will also lay out the necessary steps to move toward a future that decriminalizes drugs, centers racial justice, and shapes a harm reduction landscape that reduces death and disease and improves the health and social outcomes of people use drugs.   

“Decisive government action along with community rooted strategies are the keys to addressing this crisis,” said Kurt August the Assistant Director of Diversion and Deflection for the City of Philadelphia. “We need to transform our response from drug use as a criminal and moral problem to a health issue, for all people. This means pursuing alternatives to incarceration for drug users and focusing our efforts on connecting drug users to community-based services and treatment.”  

“After decades of criminalization – we’re left with a system that disproportionately targets communities of color,” said Teresa Springer, the Director of Programs at Wellness Services, an organization focused on advocating for marginalized populations across a myriad of social justice issues including LGBTQ services, HIV/AIDs prevention, syringe access and overdose education. “To address this, we must move dollars from systems of harm to systems of care and compassion. We must invest in programs that bolster public health and focus on harm reduction in the communities most impacted by failed drug policies.” 

The “Decriminalize Drugs to Reduce Harm and Build Justice” panel will take place during SXSW’s New Urgency Track, March 18, 2021, at 3PM CST at SXSW.  

For more information on the panel session, visit:

For more information about Vital Strategies’ overdose prevention work, visit:

About Vital Strategies 

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

To find out more, please visit or Twitter @VitalStrat.  

About the Panelists 

Daliah Heller, Director of Drug Use Initiatives, Vital Strategiesworks in public policy and practice at the intersection of public health and criminal justice, with particular expertise on drugs and drug use. Over more than two decades, she has served in leadership and advisory positions in both the government and nonprofit sectors. As assistant commissioner at the New York City health department, she established the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Use Prevention, Care, and Treatment, pursuing a robust research, policy, and program agenda that included harm reduction services integration and drug use epidemiology. Previously, as a nonprofit executive director, she grew a nationally recognized, Bronx-based harm reduction organization serving homeless and formerly incarcerated people involved with drug use. Heller holds a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from CUNY Graduate Center, MPH from Columbia University, and BA from McGill University. 

Reverend Dr. Charles Franklin Boyer, Founding Director Salvation and Social Justiceis a third-generation African Methodist Episcopal preacher. He is the pastor of Bethel A.M.E Church in Woodbury, New Jersey, and the founder of Salvation and Social Justice, a nonpartisan Black faith-rooted organization. He is a leading faith voice in New Jersey for racial justice issues including the campaign to abolish drug use and the criminalization of Black people. His advocacy has led to statewide adoption of racial impact analysis for sentencing, closure of youth prisons and voting rights restoration for people on probation and parole. Recently, he led the campaign to free thousands of incarcerated people from New Jersey’s prison due to the coronavirus.  Charles works closely with the Black Legislative Caucus and is a co-convener of the United Black Agenda and the NJ Black Multi-Faith Alliance. He’s been recognized by many platforms, as a Game Changer by the NAACP, a community servant by NJ Citizen Action and a Torch Bearer by the ACLU.  

Kurt August, Assistant Director of Diversion and Deflection at City of Philadelphia, has extensive experience working in nonprofits, policy analysis and community outreach. Previously he’s helped nonprofits like Philabundance address hunger in Philadelphia and coordinated re-entry services at the Reentry Support Project and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. As Program Manager for the Police -Assisted Diversion Program at the 22nd Police District, Kurt has led a harm reduction approach towards drug use through alternatives to incarceration. Kurt continues this work as Assistant Director of Diversion and Deflection, supporting efforts to connect drug users to community-based services and treatment. Kurt holds a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences and Master’s in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania.  

Teresa Springer, Director of Programs at Wellness Services, has a long history of working in harm reduction and prevention. She is an advocate for marginalized communities across a variety of social justice issues. Her expertise includes community outreach, program development and nonprofit management. Previously, she’s held a variety of roles in HIV Prevention and has worked with key populations including sex workers and people who use drugs. As Director of Programs at Wellness Services, Teresa continues to promote harm reduction approaches, focusing on health education, community engagement and providing safe services. Teresa has a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice and Corrections and a Master of Forensic Pathology at Argosy University.                                                                                                              

Media Contacts 
Tony Newman, Director of Communications, Overdose Prevention, 
Christina Honeysett, Director, PR, 
Ally Davis, Senior Manager, PR & Marketing,