Women Are Leading the Fight Against the War on Drugs

Two of the most prominent groups devoted to reforming America's drug laws are now run by women of colour. Here's what they're accomplishing, and how they're doing it.

by Maia Szalavitz; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
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Feb 6 2018, 9:30am

Left photo: Monique Tula by Luceo Images. Right photo:  Drug Policy Alliance/Averie Cole Photography

As it did in the 1920s, America is currently facing a Gilded Age: careening economic inequality and instability across essential social and political institutions. Also like in the 1920s, the country is confronted by what is increasingly recognized as failing prohibition. This time, it centers on drugs other than alcohol.

But there’s another parallel at work, too: the critical and changing role of women in public life. Women’s organizing was crucial both to the struggle for alcohol Prohibition and the drive for Repeal. In both cases, women helped raise concerns about the effects on children and families: first the harms done by drinking, then the harms done by the laws attempting to stop it. Meanwhile, since 2016, the country has witnessed an uprising of women across many areas of politics—from massive marches against the Trump presidency to the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and violence.

More quietly, women have taken the lead when it comes to drug policy, as well.



The Trump era marks the first time ever that two of the most prominent drug-policy reform organizations in America—the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC)—are both headed by women. Even more strikingly, given the fundamental racial injustice of the war on drugs and emboldened white supremacists gaining new power in the national culture in recent years, both are women of color.

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno became executive director of DPA late last year, and Monique Tula took the same job at HRC in late 2016. Both have penetrating insights into strategies for changing America’s twisted relationship with drugs, programs that reflect the distinct challenges of a fragmented era.

DPA is primarily focused on campaigns and initiatives that can help end the drug war, like organizing state-level marijuana ballot referenda or issuing reports in relevant policy areas. HRC, meanwhile, is spreading the philosophy of harm reduction—the idea that drug policy should aim to reduce death and suffering, not drug use—through advocacy for and by training people in things like overdose prevention and syringe exchange.

McFarland, who was raised mainly in Peru, is the daughter of an American diplomat and a Peruvian mother; her parents were both highly critical of the war on drugs. Growing up, she recalled, she could see how it harmed her mother’s country. After college, she became a lawyer and landed a job working for Human Rights Watch, where she got assigned to Colombia in the mid-2000s.

That gave her a front-row seat to the global outrages of America’s drug war.

“The US government was pouring huge amounts of money into the Colombian military and not looking too closely at the fact that, in practice, a large part of the military was essentially picking sides among drug traffickers,” she told me. The country's military was fighting the Marxist "FARC" guerrillas, but turning a blind eye both to cocaine trafficking by paramilitary groups and to massacres and torture they committed to gain ground.

The corruption associated with these connections went so deep that at one point, one third of the Colombian congress was investigated for possible ties to guerrilla-style groups. McFarland told one story of resistance to this rolling disaster in a compelling new book, out this month, called, There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia.

“The illicit market in drugs was giving these groups tremendous power,” McFarland said. “It was giving them the ability to corrupt authorities and destroy the rule of law and democracy, in addition to all the human rights abuses they were committing.”

In Tula’s case, the war hit even closer to home. Her father, who is black, met her white mother in the tumult of 1960s Los Angeles. He had grown up in poverty, in a family with a history of mental illness, which led him to self-medicate—first with heroin, and later with crack cocaine. “I think he didn’t contract HIV because he put down the needle and picked up the pipe,” she said, explaining how the need to appear strong that goes back to the days of slavery still influences how many black families deal with addiction and mental illness.

Tula has dedicated her career to reducing the harm associated with drugs—first at needle-exchange programs in Massachusetts, and then at AIDS United, an organization dedicated to fighting that disease, in Washington, DC. She didn’t get a college degree until she was 42; nonetheless, she rose rapidly through the ranks of the nonprofits that employed her. As she put it, “Because it is my truth—and my family’s history and struggle with substance use is what made me relevant.”

It took her a long time, however, to be able to apply harm-reduction principles, like being nonjudgmental and meeting people who use drugs “where they are,” to her own family. “Harm reduction is often most difficult to practice with those you love the most,” she said, recalling how she wanted her father to “just stop” and initially found it hard not to judge him. She added, “It was evident that the drug war was doing harm, but it took me a minute to connect it directly to my family’s experience.”

Both women see 2018 as a critical period for change. “It’s a moment of women working to dismantle the structures that keep us divided,” as Tula put it.

In his first State of the Union address last week, President Trump doubled down once again on the drug war, calling for policies that “get much tougher on dealers and pushers.” Noted Tula, “No mention of actual strategy. No commitment of actual funds apart from his salary for the last quarter of last year which amounts to about $100k to fight a crisis that took the lives of 64,000 in 2016 and likely even more in 2017. Clearly the emperor has no clothes.” (Trump last year also made another $57,000 or so available by declaring the opioid crisis a "public health emergency," a paltry sum that amounts to little more than a drop in the bucket.)

But before and even since Trump’s election, the drug-policy reform movement chalked up significant gains. Eight states and the District of Columbia now have (or are in the process of rolling out) some form of legalized recreational marijuana; 30 allow medical use. With the overdose crisis continuing, "We can’t arrest our way out of this,” and “addiction is a disease” have become political clichés—although moving from rhetoric into actual practice that reflects those statements has been tougher.

Still, momentum has been on the side of expanding harm-reduction policies like needle exchange programs and access to effective medications including overdose reversal drugs. And support for reducing mass incarceration (even Trump mentioned it briefly in his speech) and more radical programs that allow users a safe space to inject drugs under medical supervision is growing. Both Philadelphia and Seattle have announced plans to open such “safe-injection facilities” (SIFs) and New York, Ithaca, San Francisco and others are also exploring the possibility.

“As a parent, I think women and men are starting to realize that [what they want] is to keep their children alive and if they want to do that, harm reduction is critical,” McFarland told me.

The Trump administration could still reverse this progress, of course, whether by cracking down on the marijuana states—or, perhaps more frighteningly, encouraging local prosecutors who were already sometimes charging people with addiction for murder when someone they shared drugs with overdosed fatally.

But on the marijuana front, even now, a return to all-out drug war seems implausible. Days after Sessions said his prosecutors should no longer deemphasize prosecution of marijuana offenses that are legal under state law, Vermont became the first state to legalize pot via its legislature rather than ballot initiative. Politicians have traditionally feared supporting weed; now they recognize where the voters are. The most recent Gallup poll found that 64 percent of the population supported legal weed, the highest ever, including a majority of the same Republican Party that remains behind Trump.

With opioids, the situation is more fragile. Parents of people with addictions—often moms—have been a key force behind the expansion of access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone. But while some recognize that “drug-induced homicide” charges could just as easily harm their children as an overdose, others still cling to the idea that punishing dealers and cutting supply can solve the problem.

“It’s become increasingly clear to us at HRC that what we are fighting for are the conditions of possibility that prevent and heal harm in an environment that’s intended to maximize harm,” Tula said, adding that the threats of a crackdown from Trump have “thrown into relief how vulnerable the gains we are making are.”

To preserve them, Tula continued, “I want to see this movement fully integrated into the social and racial justice movement. There is strength in numbers and we need to defend the social safety net.”

McFarland, for her part, said moving toward decriminalization of possession of all drugs—not legal sales, but simply not locking up people who use any substance—was an important next step. In 2016, when she published a report at Human Rights Watch regarding broad drug decriminalization, she said she was pleasantly surprised by the lack of pushback. In the past, drug warriors had argued that stigmatizing use with criminal penalties was essential to deterring it. That's less common now.

“The harms are so dramatic and the benefits are zilch. There’s nothing you can possibly say to argue for criminalization of simple drug possession,” McFarland said. DPA has been strategizing about how to communicate the virtues of decriminalization, in hopes of eventually working to try it through ballot initiatives on the state level.

A new, women-led movement to stop prohibition that is harming families—across the board, but especially among minorities and poor people—may be exactly what’s needed to finally end the country’s 100-year drug war. Of course, solid arguments for harm reduction and decriminalization can be made by people across the gender spectrum, and some of them are simply about saving money. But it has historically been harder for drug warriors to dismiss women—and especially mothers—as simply wanting to legalize selfish pleasures when they argue the status quo is destroying families.

“We’re not just fighting for harm reduction,” Tula said. “We’re fighting for love and justice.”

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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