This International Drug User Day, it's time to #ReframeTheBlame

Today, November 1, marks International Drug User Day, a moment which seeks to #ReframeTheBlame, to restore the dignity and humanity to people who use drugs and the families who love them. A large body of policy research makes it clear that addiction is a disease, not a sign of moral failure, and that it should be approached with public policy solutions just as we must do for cancer, HIV, or Hepatitis.

As I write this today, I think of people from the rural town I grew up in who are no longer alive. Their memory has been clouded by the shame that would accompany any acknowledgement of drug use, an overdose, or the ways in which stigma and social isolation form a barrier between disease and treatment. 

I went back to Easton this spring to speak at an event about the opiates crisis, and brought friends from the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition (BHRC) and Bmore Power to speak about policies that seek to meet drug users “where they’re at”. Harm Reduction policies begin with the administration of Naloxone and the use of clean needle exchanges, both of which have been implemented in Maryland. 

This past legislative session, Healthcare is a Human Right supported a bill that would expand on these policies with the creation of Safer Consumption Spaces (SCS) in Maryland. A SCS operates as a clinic where people can access treatment services and safely use drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who can intervene in the event of an overdose.

The Safer Consumption Spaces bill did not make it past committee this last session, and a new, statewide network has been created to connect Baltimore-area activists with allies in rural counties. Deaths from overdoses are not new to Baltimore, nor are they new to Easton, where the effects of systemic poverty and racism across multiple generations cut just as sharply - albeit at a much smaller scale. Many in the room at the event I attended a few months ago acknowledged that overdose deaths had only become a political issue in Talbot County because of the spike in deaths among white people.

This acknowledgment, and the growing awareness of rural Marylanders that the War on Drugs affects them too, holds the potential to build new alliances and to shift policy away from the criminalization of drug use. But to get there, white Marylanders who come from rural counties must come to terms with the racist origins of these failed policies, which have more to do with controlling and hiding people from view than connecting them to treatment.

With medical consensus showing that opiate addiction is a public health crisis which cannot be resolved through the criminal justice system, one would think that policymakers would be looking into alternatives to criminalization. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Across the US, police are using drug-induced homicide laws to charge friends and family members of people who are dying with second-degree murder. Under these laws, the person who delivers a drug involved in a fatal overdose is guilty of a crime. This strategy isn't favored because it will actually save lives or steer people towards treatment. Many of the laws go back to the 1980s and have not been utilized until now. They have regained popularity so that our elected officials can look like they’re actually doing something. But an overdose death is not murder, and drug-induced homicide laws are counterproductive and inhumane.

The momentum behind criminalization goes beyond the War on Drugs. It is part of an ideology that justifies the immiseration of millions of poor, sick and dying people in the US and categorizes them as disposable because their humanity is a thorn to the interests of a for-profit healthcare system. 

In a country where it is easier for many to buy drugs than a cancer screening, why do we continue to lock people up for using? It is time to take the criminal justice system out of the equation, and to work with people who use drugs to create and implement new policy strategies that show respect to human life - and the human right to healthcare.

In Maryland, access to treatment for people with substance use disorders (drugs and alcohol) remains poor. Often, it is tied to the criminal justice system. Back in Talbot County, the local government has made the St. Michaels police station a designated go-to space for people seeking intervention. It's hard to imagine a more inappropriate location. 

As it turns out, access to comprehensive medical care - especially mental health services for children and adults with PTSD - is an essential part of a preventative approach. For this, we need a universal healthcare system. We need National Improved Medicare for All.