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A Harm Reductionist’s Case for Abolition

Since 2020’s uprisings against anti-Black police violence, communities and institutions across the country have been critically re-evaluating their relationships with police agencies. Contracts have been terminated, and cities like DenverSan Francisco, New York and Philadelphia have created mental health response teams that dispatch non-police, trained first responders for mental health calls, including those involving overdoses.

It is time for harm reduction organizations to follow suit by cutting ties with police and committing to an abolitionist vision for harm reduction.

Currently, harm reduction organizations work with police in a variety of contexts. Naloxone trainings are the most common. Additionally, these nonprofits sometimes consult on Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs—which coerce people who use drugs (PWUD) into treatment or connect them to other services after a drug-related encounter. Organizations have worked with law enforcement to pass needlestick safety laws, framing protections for drug users who disclose needle possession as an occupational safety issue for police officers. The Open Society Foundations published a guide in 2018 about how police can work in the spirit of harm reduction to both “advance public health and public safety.” The case for working with police has even been made here in Filter.

At first glance, collaborating with police seems laudable. However, approaches to harm reduction that involve law enforcement as active partners not only misunderstand the role of policing in America, but also have the potential to perpetuate further harm.

When we say we want to end the racist drug war, does that extend to all forms of policing?

The police are an institution, as history demonstrates, rooted in upholding chattel slavery and enacting Indigenous genocide. In The New York Times, prominent abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba pointed out that policing in the United States, in part, emerged from slave patrols. Police have consistently inflicted violence on Indigenious people in the US; today, Indigenous people die at higher rates from police violence than any other group—the majority of deaths attributed to police shootings. Similarly, we now know that the Nixon administration launched the War on Drugs to target the “blacks and the hippies.”

When we say we want to end the racist drug war, does that extend to all forms of policing? Our goal cannot be to merely end the criminalization of drugs, only for the state to double down on other avenues of criminalization, like fare enforcement, unhoused encampment sweeps and other “broken windows” tactics.

A common talking point that is used to defend working with police is that they are now starting to “get it”; that after having lost friends, family and community members to overdose, they now see the tragic consequences of punitive drug enforcement. The problem with this narrative is that it relies on the officer to empathize with people who use drugs, and that empathy is almost always predicated on the criminalized person’s whiteness. It is well documented how the opioid-involved overdose crisis has come to be viewed as a problem because of its perceived whiteness, while past (mainly Black) victims of crises received contempt and criminalization. The notion of the “white, innocent” person who uses drugs puts at risk those who do not fit neatly into this image.

Research also shows that this idea of cops’ “compassion through exposure” does not hold up. One study documented that the more times officers respond to overdoses, the more negative their perceptions towards overdose prevention programs. Another study found that while 55 percent of surveyed police officers reported more positive feelings toward overdose survivors after participating in a harm reduction training, fully 31 percent reported increased negative feelings post-training.

Laws may be passed to protect drug users who call the police, but it is ultimately the officer who decides how and when to enforce the law. This is why studies consistently show that people who use drugs are hesitant to call 911 to report an overdose for fear of criminalization by police. This innocence narrative also leaves out people who sell drugs, instead casting them as nefarious agents who cause death. Prosecutors have moved to charge them with the “homicides” of people who fatally overdose. Some people have even been charged with “assault” after supposedly exposing officers to fentanyl. Laws protect drug users who report overdoses on paper, but there are ways cops get around such laws.

Perhaps the biggest reason stated for working with law enforcement is that it’s necessary to change drug policy and policing. But is it really? The Minneapolis Police Department had already instituted reforms like racial bias training and de-escalation training; George Floyd still died underneath the knee of an officer.

After Floyd’s death, those who sought to minimize police culpability attributed his death to the fentanyl in his system. Floyd was in recovery and had used opioids, but it was an act of police violence that killed him, not overdose. After a few months of mass protest and organizing, we have seen more progress in holding the police to account than in the years spent pursuing their “reform.” Seattle, for instance, cut its police budget by 18 percent and Austin cut its budget by one third.

There are, of course, instances when working with the police is unavoidable, like jumping through the bureaucratic hoops required for establishing a syringe exchange. However, that is crucially different from treating the police like a trusted partner. In holding law enforcement’s hands and tempering our language to get the tiniest movement, we are reinforcing the role of the police in society while failing to end the drug war. Police get image rehabilitation while we get marginal and conditional improvements.

Rather than spending years trying to convince the police that people who use drugs should be treated like people, our time is better spent investing in community and organizing.

Cooperation with police is now being weaponized against the movement to defund the police. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Dr. Leana Wen mentioned training cops to use naloxone and getting law enforcement to participate in diversion programs, where people who use drugs are forcibly ushered into treatment instead of jail. Wen’s article was designed to slow the momentum of the defund movement, but also centered the feelings of police officers over the people they purportedly help. Wen said that police officers compete over who can record most naloxone resuscitations; in effect, drug users’ lives are made accomplishments to collect.

Rather than spending years trying to convince the police that people who use drugs should be treated like people, our time as harm reductionists is better spent investing in community and organizing—which of course some of us have been doing for decades. By joining the Defund the Police movement, we can organize to get real wins: slashing police budgets and diverting more money to services to help people get housing and health care, among other things. Crucially, with support growing for non-police responses, we can finally replace police as first responders to overdoses.

Lobbying the carceral state has its uses, but it cannot be the only resource in our toolkit. Moreover, choosing to work with law enforcement damages our credibility and will make us seem like actors that cannot be trusted.

Abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us that abolitionists do not just wish to abolish prisons and police, but also the very social problems that they claim to address. The state has used prisons to address poverty, houselessness and lack of health care. In part, mass incarceration has been driven by laws that criminalize poverty and houselesness. Poverty is also a key driver of violent crime, in particular gun violence.

For opponents of defunding the police, the movement, and not the structural conditions, are to blame for the increasing levels of crime seen during the pandemic; but few cities have actually made cuts to their police forces. A more likely explanation lies in the fact that we are living through a deadly pandemic that has caused mass unemployment and stress.

The logic of prisons and police must also go, abolitionists believe. However, we know that gender-based and other forms of violence still persist in our world, and spaces where drugs are used are no exception. People who use drugs, peer workers and others who work in affirming spaces have therefore developed (and are continuing to develop) alternative strategies.

For harm reduction service providers, like safe consumption sites, that may mean disciplining or excluding certain people  whose behaviors are deemed problematic, as a drug policy panel noted in 2019. De-escalation strategies or identity-specific programs—like women-only harm reduction centers and separate spaces where women can use safely—can help manage and prevent, respectively, conflicts that may have otherwise involved a carceral response.

These are all working alternatives to calling the police that can help to address harms in the community. While we work to develop a world where these oppressive conditions no longer exist, continuing to rely on community for safety and care, rather than the police, will serve as harm reduction. This commitment to creating a non-carceral, safe environment must be maintained as we fight for things that will actually reduce drug-related harms: a safe supply, safe consumption sites, unrestricted syringe access and more.

Let us not hesitate. Let us call ourselves abolitionists. 

There are those who are attempting to redefine harm reduction; from a liberatory framework that seeks to reduce the amount of harm people are exposed to in their lives to a justification of exposing people to some police violence, rather than a lot. We must not lose the plot. Rather than pursuing reforms that purport to reduce harm in police interactions, we can push for reduced police contact. For the policing reforms we do pursue, we should ask ourselves a question encouraged by the people at Critical Resistance: Does this expand the power of, or legitimize, the police?

We face three overlapping crises:continued historic rates of largely-preventable overdose deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic with inadequate government responses, and gratuitous anti-Black racism. Great fires have been sparked all across the United States, fueled by the righteous anger of the people. From the smoldering embers of the society of the old, we can fight for the world we want to see. We have a real opportunity to move harm reduction forward; let us not hesitate. Let us call ourselves abolitionists. 


This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.

* Abdullah Shihipar is a writer who has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Nation, Teen Vogue and other outlets. He also directs narrative projects and policy initiatives at the Marshall Research Lab at the Brown University School of Public Health

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