Interview with Deborah Peterson Small

Deborah Small is the founder of Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs.

Febuary in the United States is black history month, Deborah is writing an article each day to highlight the impact of the 'war on drugs' on communities of colour in the United States, entitled 29 Days on Drugs,you can read these articles here.

Break the chain's was established in 2004 and aims through activism to decrease "racial disparity in arrests, convictions and incarcerations  for drug offence" and also to reduce the effects of punitive drug policies on communities. 

How would you place the ‘war on drugs’ in the history of communities of colour in the United States?

I agree with scholars and others like Michelle Alexander who rightful place the 'war on drugs' as the most recent iteration of the system of racial oppression and marginalization that has been a hallmark of the African-American experience. The history of U.S. drug policy is rooted in racism towards blacks, Asians and Hispanics so it's really no surprise its impact has been felt most keenly in poor minority communities.   

What has led to such a slow response to the issue amongst the mainstream of African American political activism?  

The war on drugs poses special challenges for people because it is ostensibly based on the commonly accepted view that illicit drugs are bad and that punishment is an effective tool to deter people from drugs. Neither is true, but these views are held as firmly in African-American communities as they are in the wider population.  

Drug policy reform activism requires distinguishing the harms associated with drug abuse from the harms resulting from drug policies. For a long time many African-American leaders believed we could 'win' the war on drugs and supported stronger efforts at law enforcement and drug interdiction. There is also a class component - the principal victims of drug law enforcement have been poor black people, whose interests have not always been been placed at the forefront by leaders who tend to represent the middle class. 

Disproportionality is an issue with the policing of drug use in many countries, why do you think there is such a common and significant pattern?  

In my view drug law enforcement disproportionally targets poor and/or marginalized communities in every society because the 'war on drugs' has little to do with eliminating drug use and abuse and a lot to do with controlling people. Targeting behavior defined as 'deviant and dangerous' for punishment as a tool to control people is an old and common practice. Criminal law is used both to punish people for harms they've caused to others and to punish people we don't like for doing things we don't approve of even if we may do them ourselves. It's perverse but true. Additionally, once people have been criminalized it becomes easier to ignore what happens to them, if their needs are met, if they're treated fairly. Their problems become their fault, not ours. The drug war grants every society absolution for its social ills and inequalities as well as an excuse to rid itself of problems by locking them away. 

HIV has had a disproportionate impact on communities of colour in the United States, why do you think this is?

The disproportionately high rate of HIV in communities of color in the use is due to a combination of factors including:  


  • Lack of access to affordable preventative health care - the communities of color with the highest rate of HIV infection are also communities with high rates of poverty, homelessness, unemployment and substance abuse. We know there is a relationship between these conditions and vulnerability to HIV. 
  • Denial - the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS reinforced the state of denial in many poor communities of color about the prevalence of HIV. The fact that the virus was initially attached to stigmatized activities - (e.g. homosexuality, intravenous drug use, prostitution) only reinforced the denial and kept the issue off the radar of faith leaders.  
  • Government response - More than 30 years into the HIV pandemic, the U.S. still refuses to embrace harm reduction as an essential component of a comprehensive approach to HIV. The availability of needle exchange programs is sketchy and the are still parts of the country were people have been prosecuted for distributing clean needles and other drug paraphernalia to reduce the spread of HIV.  The issue has become highly politicized and most Americans have no idea how the U.S. compares to the rest of the world with respect to HIV, especially drug-related HIV. For example, at one point the estimates of HIV infection among injection drug users in NYC was as high as 50%, activists felt a real sense of accomplishment when the rate was reduced by half but that still left us with double-digit rates, the countries that adopted a harm reduction approach in the early days of the HIV epidemic kept their rate of infection well below 10%.That gap represents the cost in lives of U.S. intransigence on this issue.       


How significant a shift is the greater involvement of groups like the NACCP in recent year?  

I think it's very significant that groups like the NAACP have become more involved in the movement to end the war on drugs. Personally, I don't believe we will ever be a real 'movement' without significant involvement of the people who continue to bear the brunt of the drug war. The NAACP is the largest black membership organization in the U.S. and traditionally has been somewhat conservative, that it has taken up the issue of drug policy reform represents a significant step towards movement from the fringe to the mainstream of African-American political consciousness. My hope is they will move from condemning the war on drugs to calling for an end to global drug prohibition and its replacement with effective systems of regulation and control.    

Here is a link to an article that appeared in Alternet today with the speech Alice Huffman, (President of the California NAACP and Chair of the National Criminal Justice Committee)  made at the DPA conference explaining how she came to embrace drug policy reform: Alice Huffman on the drug war