Public libraries are closing due to meth contamination just as the Denver mayoral election is heating up. The convergence is driving public discussion around regulating and criminalizing restricted substances.

So, what should Colorado do to address these concerns? The answer, I believe, is found in harm reduction.

Harm reductionists working with illicit drugs take a restorative approach, empowering drug users as individuals with rights and agency, making it possible to rebuild our communities. The harm reductionist framework differs from mainstream discussions that frame those who use drugs as dangerous and criminal. It suggests drug use is a complex issue that cannot be approached by dismissing experiences, but instead by eliminating the harm at a variety of levels and reasserting the agency of individuals who use drugs.

A harm reductionist framework statewide is necessary for creating a safer world. Current policies only fuel inequality and stigma, ultimately leading to death. 

So, why does criminalization hurt marginalized communities, especially people of color and impoverished populations?

First, we must understand that illicit drugs are, for better or worse, part of society. We know that drug use is found across all groups, including the wealthy elites. There is evidence that wealthy teens use more drugs than their economically disadvantaged counterparts.

Yet, incarceration rates don’t reflect this reality. White women have the lowest incarceration rate, whereas black men have the highest, with 1 in 3 likely to be imprisoned. We know that wealthy white people commit crimes, including using illegal drugs. Yet, they are significantly less likely to be severely punished and have more resources to navigate such systems. Prison systems are not a solution; instead, they continue inequalities that further sideline certain groups, especially racial minorities.  

Furthermore, we know our current system treats social groups differently, especially when we compare poor people of color and their treatment to wealthy white people. It brings us to question who we keep safe, and from what (or whom). Not only are disadvantaged bodies more likely to be penalized, but they also often have higher mortality rates than their peers. That is, impoverished, unhoused, uneducated populations die more frequently from drug-related crimes.

It becomes clear that protections for the advantaged currently come at the expense of the disadvantaged, furthering the stigma against these groups. This explains how wealthy white neighborhoods use drugs, yet impoverished groups and groups of color are imprisoned. 

Not only does criminalizing drug use lead to further insecurity, inequality, and deaths; it drives the problem. The structures that push wealthy white communities to use drugs — additional resources, stress, and social influence — differ from those of impoverished communities and communities of color.

As the War on Drugs podcasters put it: We assume that “people with addiction problems [need to be punished] to give them the incentive to stop. But, once you understand that pain is the fuel, pain is the cause, pain is the driver of addiction, you can see why that’s so crazy.”

To clarify, there is a difference between drug use and addiction. Furthermore, there is nothing innately immoral about drug addiction. It highlights social and structural issues in our society. These are some of the pain points.

This is where I see the power of harm reduction. It allows us to see people where they are and assist them, while both dismissing and disrupting the stigmas. I believe disrupting pain through community care is essential to support our neighbors while bringing lasting change to heal our communities. Supporting our communities is an essential element of dealing with the concern of drug addiction. 

Our public policy, however, is not aligned with this idea. Colorado’s 2022 Fentanyl Accountability And Prevention Act, for example, describes itself as having harm-reductionist provisions, yet it requires treatment for people who use drugs convicted under the law. The new law suggests that sobriety is what we aim for as the ultimate goal.

Unfortunately, this simple view, once again, misses the agency and individuality of people who use drugs that harm reduction demands. It fuels the problem. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety,” the War on Drugs podcasters say. “The opposite of addiction is connection.” Again, it becomes unbelievably clear that ostracizing and othering people who use drugs — our current approach — is counterproductive. We must aim for connection over dividing our communities between us and them.

Suggesting coercion over individual agency and empowerment goes against the foundational values in harm reduction strategy. Collectivism and community care through harm reduction are how we move forward.  

Colorado has a problem with drugs, both in presence and usage. There’s no question about it.

But it also has a problem with dealing with drugs. Criminalizing drug use and penalizing (mainly disadvantaged) offenders exacerbates the issue. It leads to countless preventable deaths. Harm reduction helps the individual survive while restructuring our communities around care.

If Colorado wants to address the problem, we must turn to harm reductionists with an open mind. Sweeping generalizations, policies, and hostility is not the solution. Hopefully, Denver’s next mayoral candidate will help us aim for a caring and holistic approach. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be surprised when the issue becomes visibly worse.

Jazlynne Smith lives in Denver.

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Jazlynne Smith lives in Denver.