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Drug Policy Reformers Organize in Southeast Under Banner Called SHARC


October 1995

Drug policy reformers called together by the Southeastern Harm Reduction Coalition (SHARC) met at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, NC on July 29, 1995. The meeting was organized by Kevin Gray, a national board member of the ACLU, and Katrina Nylund of the South Carolina affiliate of the ACLU. Funding was provided by The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. The conference was designed to organize a grassroots effort for common sense drug policy. One of the most important speakers was Dr. Dawn Day, the Director of the Dogwood Center, an independent research center in Princeton, NJ, who spoke on criminal justice policy and race. Dr. Day's article "Drug Arrests: Are Blacks Being Targeted?" was the Guest Column in NewsBriefs in April 1995.

Dr. Day presented a paper entitled "Why Getting Sterile Needles to Persons Who Inject Drugs Is A Civil Rights Issue." She pointed out that in 1994 there were over 14,000 new AIDS cases among African-Americans and the number of new AIDS cases will be even higher in 1995. One of Dr. Day's most striking findings was that in 1993 there were almost 2 1/2 times as many white injecting drug users as there were black injecting drug users, yet in 1994 there were twice as many drug-related new AIDS cases among African-Americans as there were among whites. Among persons who injected drugs, African-Americans were almost 5 times as likely as whites to be diagnosed as having AIDS. Using rates per million, the incidence of new drug-related AIDS cases among black men (the group with the highest rate) is over 40 times higher than the incidence of new drug-related AIDS cases among white women (the group with the lowest rate). Looking at arrest rates among those who used cocaine and heroin in 1993, blacks who used cocaine or heroin were more than 4 times as likely to be arrested as whites who used cocaine or heroin.

Dr. Michael Poulson of the Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, in Atlanta spoke on the politics of harm reduction. Dr. Poulson outlined a broad vision of harm reduction as a non-judgmental, non-moralistic approach to public health. An example of harm reduction is that even those people who drive faster than the legal speed limit should wear seat belts. The logic of those who would deny sterile needles to injecting drug users is that drivers should not wear seat belts when they drive faster than the speed limit. Indeed, cars should not be equipped with seat belts because it might encourage speeding, and that is dangerous. Seat belts send the wrong message.

Dr. Poulson pointed out that harm reduction is an extremely important bridge to treatment. He observed that drug addicts, coming to a needle exchange and finding non-judgmental people giving them syringes so that they won't get AIDS or other diseases, often say to the needle exchanger, "You are the first person who has ever told me, 'I care about you.'"

Harm reduction is about giving people the tools to save themselves. Dr. Poulson is researching perceptions of risk and how poor understanding of risk leads to more risky behaviors. He identified barriers to the spread of harm reduction in black communities. One of the most important barriers is a moralism that he finds usually has its source in the teachings in many churches. Dr. Poulson observed that we are a strong and intelligent people, that we need to have more faith in ourselves, and that we should see that harm reduction is fundamentally a way to save lives -- not an encouragement to improper behavior.

Steve Bates, the Executive Director of the South Carolina ACLU, addressed the question of police misconduct and the need for civilian review boards. He outlined the different types of civilian review boars and stressed the need for such boards to be able to subpoena witnesses and to independently conduct in-depth investigations when members of the community complain about being victimized by rogue police officers.

Bates also discussed the prosecution of drug-addicted pregnant women for delivering drugs to their babies. He noted that 32 of the first 33 women arrested for this crime were black.

Eric E. Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation spoke at length about a number of drug policy reform questions. A question had been raised repeatedly during the day: is legalization a bad idea because drugs are immoral? He addressed the question of the morality of drug use in contrast to the wisdom or stupidity of using drugs. He then charged that prohibition is immoral, far more immoral than simply using drugs, or regulating their use. He pointed out how prohibition results in recruiting people into the criminal drug trade. Prohibition recruits people into the violence of the drug trade. Prohibition recruits people to serve as informants against their friends, family and neighbors. Sterling outlined the powerful economics of prohibition and reported on the book, Land of Opportunity, which he reviewed in NewsBriefs in September 1995.

Sterling explained that the concept of legalization is very ambiguous and advocated a form of regulation and control of the traffic in drugs.

Sterling then set forth an agenda for activists in the Southeast to take to their legislatures:

  1. Fight for expanded drug abuse treatment options instead of expanding the prison and jail populations. Research in California has shown that a dollar spent in drug abuse treatment saves seven dollars of taxpayer expenditures for other types of social services.

  2. Support the expansion of drug court programs.

  3. Fight for drug prevention programs that are effective. He cited the September 1994 study by Research Triangle Institute that found that D.A.R.E. is ineffective at reducing drug use and less effective than other drug abuse prevention programs. Enormous sums of private, local, state, and federal money are spent on D.A.R.E., totalling roughly $700 million per year. The City of Oakland, California, he announced, had just abandoned its participation in D.A.R.E. that week.

  4. Advocate clean needle exchange programs to prevent AIDS.

  5. Encourage the adoption of medical marijuana legislation. At a minimum, legislatures can be encouraged to enact an affirmative defense to a charge of possession or cultivation for personal use if the defendant has a medical condition that is being treated with marijuana and offers medical evidence to support that fact. In addition, an affirmative defense should be enacted for those persons charged with distribution or possession with intent to distribute if that person can prove that the distribution is exclusively for people who are sick. The California legislature adopted such a bill, but Governor Pete Wilson has said that he would veto it.

  6. Work to end mandatory minimum sentencing. He pointed out the enormous success of Families Against Mandatory Minimums in demonstrating the injustice of mandatory minimums. One important point to make is that eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases means that there are many more prison beds for violent offenders.

  7. Urge a comprehensive health promotion program be put in place: (a) Teen pregnancy prevention; (b) More prenatal care; (c) Support and training for young parents; (d) Recreation programs and facilities for children; and (e) Intervention to protect kids who are in trouble.

  8. Advocate tighter alcohol regulation and ending the promotion of alcohol and tobacco. Activists should support stronger enforcement of the regulations against the sale of alcohol and tobacco to kids. He encouraged communities of color to insist on the removal of alcohol and tobacco billboards from their neighborhoods.

  9. Call for commissions to be set up on state and municipal levels to study the costs and benefits of current drug strategy and the alternatives. Such commissions should consider the tx benefits from regulation and licensing marijuana consumption and distribution.

  10. Work for improved strategies for the police and prosecutors to deal with the drug problems. Key drug prohibition problems are: (a) violence in the streets; (b) open air drug trafficking and their profits that entice children into the drug trade; (c) disorder in the community that interferes with legitimate commerce, attendance in schools, etc.; and (d) reduced value of real estate. Police and prosecutorial decisions regarding arrest and sentencing can effect how the drug trafficking markets are organized. Typical opportunistic enforcement simply results in drug markets being shifted around town with crime and violence following along. Police should consider strategies that drive drug traffickers indoors or to neighborhoods that are industrial, and not residential or commercial. Enforcement that results in less overall disruption to the life of the community might make sense.

The audience split up into regionally-based task forces to plan local organizing strategies and to set priorities. They agreed to develop a mission statement from the following points:

  1. Advocate needle exchange and other modalities of outreach and availability. Blood borne disease is rampant in the Southeast. The health of all is threatened. Interventions to stop blood borne disease must be a top public health priority.
  2. Educate ourselves about the urgent needs of our neighbors without sitting in judgment.
  3. Work with community leaders to assure that policies reflect reason, our common compassionate values, and respect for individual liberty and human dignity.
  4. Empower parents to be involved in the drug education of their children.
  5. Advocate for access to alternatives to drugs to give children something to say yes to.
  6. Develop materials related to harm reduction.
  7. Advocate increased funding for public drug and HIV treatment programs.
  8. Publicize cost effectiveness of harm reduction.