Drug Policy Reformers Organize in Southeast Under Banner Called SHARC
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:
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: