VOCAL–WA (Voices of Community Activists and Leaders – Washington) is talking about safe consumption, not safe injection, and there is a reason why.
The war on drugs is not and never has been racially equitable. Without intervention, its end will not be equitable either. Although rates of drug use and sales are comparable across racial lines, people of color have faced significantly higher rates of arrest, prosecution and conviction for drug use and sales than people who are White. It is a sad fact, and one that has resulted in gross racial disparity in our criminal justice system.
The national interest in safe-injection spaces is just one of many signals that the end of the war is nigh. Such spaces provide a place for injection drug users to inject under medical supervision, with clean supplies and out of the alleys and doorways. It is an important public health intervention and a step in the right direction. But it is not sufficient. We do not need safe-injection spaces alone; we need safe-consumption spaces. An intervention that prioritizes heroin and opiate use but leaves out crack cocaine, a drug that is predominantly smoked rather than injected, is an intervention turning a blind eye to racial equity.
The focus on crack cocaine was the fundamental cause of racial disparity in Seattle drug delivery arrests and continues to play an important role in racial disparity. As the heroin epidemic gains national attention — and with that attention a push for a more harm-reduction, treatment and service-oriented response — it is imperative that it does not result in yet more racial disparity, with predominantly White drug users gaining the benefit of a public health and safety approach and Black drug users continuing to be left out in the cold.
Not all heroin users are White and not all crack cocaine users are Black. However, while heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among Whites, with nearly
90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade being White.
When the war on drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor and predominantly Black communities, the call was for more enforcement, increased prison sentences and “zero tolerance.” Generations of men and women of color have been incarcerated, communities devastated and families ripped apart.
If young Black men and women were the face of the crack epidemic in the inner city, increasingly suburban White men and women are the face of the heroin epidemic.
As the impact of the heroin epidemic increasingly affects White America, the call has changed, shifting away from an enforcement paradigm to one of public health and safety.
The move to a public health and safety paradigm is necessary, appropriate and long overdue. But as we make that shift, we cannot and must not leave out the people most affected by the war on drugs. As this new paradigm rolls in, we must be intentional about its scope, ensuring that new programs, services and approaches serve not only the most comparatively privileged, but also those who have struggled under the incredible weight of our nation’s longest war.
The lives of people who use drugs matter — all people, addicted to all drugs. It is time we recognize the humanity, the dignity and the lives of the people too often pushed into the alleys, the parks and the dark corners of our city. We need safe consumption spaces now, because we need an end to the war on poor people and people of color now. Too much has been lost for too long, and there is no time to wait.
On April 22, VOCAL–WA invites you to join us in commemorating those incarcerated due to the war on drugs. We will be tying orange ribbons of remembrance, solidarity and love to symbolize friends, family and loved ones who have suffered and been jailed due to addiction and the opportunity gaps that left few apparent alternatives for some people than to get involved in the drug economy. Join us at City Hall Park at 11 a.m. for a ribbon-tying ceremony, press conference and speak-out.
Patricia Sully is a staff attorney at the Public Defender Association. She has been an active advocate for social change for more than a decade as an activist, organizer and lawyer. When she is not in the office, she can often be found protesting in the streets.