Stay Woke: Black Women, Harm Reduction, and the War on Drugs

                      By: Virgil Hayes

preg black mother.png

I blame my mother, for turning my brother into a crack baby.” – 2Pac Keep ya head up

It’s no secret that the rising rates of drug overdose fatalities amongst White substance users, has been accompanied by a “softer approach” to the issues of drug use and addiction. Prior to this shift, Black and Brown substance users found themselves being criminalized and stigmatized due to the racist and classist drug policies during the early years of the War on Drugs. But it didn’t stop there. In the years following Nixon’s drug war, media and research articles detailing the myth of the “crack baby”, were being promoted at the expense of pregnant substance users. (Washington, 2006). The majority of which, were Black women. As author and scholar Harriet Washington states in her book Medical Apartheid, this myth contributed to the incarceration of Black pregnant substance users. (Washington, 2006).

Unfortunately, by the time news spread of the research studies flaws, mainly the lack consideration for external factors such as poor nutrition, housing conditions, and absence of quality prenatal care, the damage had already been done. (Washington, 2006). The shaming of Black and Brown pregnant drug users was given legitimacy through anti-drug policies and programs. For example, in 1997, a non-profit organization then known as CRACK (Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity), begin putting up advertisements with the slogan, “Don’t Let a Pregnancy Ruin Your Drug Habit”. (Washington, 2006). The ads offered $200 to men and women (mostly Black) with a CUD (cocaine use disorder), who were willing to be sterilized or receive long-term birth control. Because under the drug war, shame and stigma rather than empathy and compassion have informed our reactions to drug use and addiction at the expense of the most marginalized groups.


So, what does this all mean? Well for starters, had 2Pac and other Black Americans impacted by the crack epidemic of the 80’s been provided with accurate information, the American government and media rather than Black mothers, would have been held accountable for turning Black and Brown children into crack babies. Also, much like Kanye’s views on all things concerning race (or anything for that matter), outdated drug politics will never save us. But an effective approach championed by women of color, could lead to more culturally competent treatment programs and progressive drug policies within marginalized communities. 

“Black folk: we got to wake up! The intrigue is misleading, the forgery apparent. Harm Reduction is our battle too. Every time we see a sister pregnant and dope sick we should be outraged that some idiot is telling her she ought to get clean and sober – like she don’t know that or long for abstinence since that’s all she’s ever heard.” – Imani Woods 1995 article Harm Reduction in the Black Community   

imani woods.png

For those who don’t know, harm reduction is the belief that the development of a drug/alcohol-related addiction, does not negate the rights and autonomy of substance users. Throughout her life Imani Woods, a founding member of the Harm Reduction Coalition worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the importance of harm reduction within communities of color (Harm Reduction Coalition , 2018).  In addition, efforts to provide communities of color with the education and resources needed to effectively address  drug-related problems were put forth by members of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1972 when Elain Brown (Harm Reduction Coalition , 2018), then leader of the BPP, updated the Black Panther Party manifesto to include the following: 

We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventative medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care.”


Given the racist origins of the drug war and the valued work of Black women within the harm reduction movement, it is vital that we never lose sight of the fact that harm reduction and racial justice do not exist in a vacuum. For example, supervised injection facilities, a form of harm reduction that allows substance users to use drugs in a safe and healthy environment without increasing crime or drug use, are being considered in Baltimore to address the drug-related issues impacting communities of color. (Project Inform, 2016). Additionally, Black women drug policy reformers, Kristen Maye and Kassandra Frederique remind us in their 2017piece titled, Supervised Injection Facilities are Safe Houses Not Crack Houses

A supervised injection facility is a public health intervention. But it doesn’t stop there. SIFs not only reduce the potential harms associated with drug use; they also reduce the harms associated with failed drug policies—namely, the over policing and criminalization of Black and Latino people. SIFs aren’t just an answer to issues surrounding drug related health issues; they’re also a step toward the reduction of criminalization for those communities most targeted by the war on drugs, which may be kinder and gentler for white people, but which continues to rage unabated for Black and Latino people. (Maye & Frederique, 2017)

And while research shows that drug addiction is not a large issue amongst Black folks, for Black women who develop a substance use disorder, acquiring the resources needed (i.e. educational attainment, money, and a lack or absence of childhood adversity) to break their cycle of addiction can be difficult to say the least. (Evans, Grella , Washington, & Upchurch , 2017). The graph listed below using data pulled from a 2017 research article shows the income amongst Black, White, and Hispanic women with substance use disorders in 2016. 


 Whether its needle exchange, supervised injection facilities, or laws calling for the legalization of illicit substances, harm reduction policies and programs provide an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past. But doing so, will require community members and politicians to do what is rarely done when issues of injustice are raised; adhere to the voices of Black women.




Evans, E., Grella , C., Washington, D., & Upchurch , D. (2017). Gender and racce/ethinc difference in the persistance of alcohol, drug, and poly-substance use disorders . Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 128-136.

Eversman, M. H. (2014). "Trying to Find the Middle Ground": Drug Policy and Harm Reduction in Black Communities . Race and Justice , 29-44.

Harm Reduction Coalition . (2012, April 13). Harm Reduction Coalition. Retrieved from Harm Reduction:

Maye, K., & Frederique, K. (2017, June 22). HUFFPOST. Retrieved from Huffington Post:

Project Inform. (2016). Safer Consumption Spaces in the United States: Uniting For A National Movement. Baltimore.

Washington, H. A. (2006). Medical Aparthied . New York: Anchor Books .