Community Alternatives to the Drug War: An Anarchist Guide to Harm Reduction

This piece was co-authored with the late Syd Eastman. Rest in power Syd. 

The War on Drugs is a failure. This seems more and more to be the modern consensus among the population as incarceration rates skyrocket only to line the pockets of a few greedy corporations feeding off of cheap prison slave labor. The opioid crisis rages on. Doctors push pills for profits while state crackdowns force corporate-made junkies to find alternate fixes on the streets. There’s no denying that many of the so-called problems with drug use are actually problems caused by the state, capitalism, and social attitudes towards drug use. However it is also just as naive to think that drug use does not have its inherent risks. As anarchists, we believe that people should be able to consume whatever they wish, but as people who wish to see a society built upon mutual aid, we also wish to engage in harm reduction.

The most common form of “harm reduction” proposed in mainstream political discourse is drug legalization, usually restricted to only cannabis and “softer” drugs. However legalization does almost nothing to solve the problem while actually exacerbating these issues in many ways. First and foremost, legalization usually does not include the pardoning of those imprisoned for drug crimes and the expungement of all drug crimes from one’s criminal record. Legalization is basically useless if we are not freeing people from prison. All legalization does is further regulate the industry, taking it out of the hands of the black market workers who built it and into the hands of corporations while still threatening to imprison anyone who engages in black market drug sales. Even with legalization, people with drug felonies are typically kept from working in the legal industry. Keeping working class black market entrepreneurs under threat of the police state while letting bourgeois capitalists take the demand away from the very people who survive off that income is not something anarchists of any stripe should be in support of.

So what do we fight for legislatively, if anything? Well as far as reforms go, decriminalization would go a long way towards freeing the market and keeping the police state off the backs of some of the most marginalized in our communities. Unlike legalization, decriminalization does not allow one to open up a white market drug business. Instead it actually means that possession, use, and in some cases even private person-to-person sales, are no longer crimes. This means that the preexisting black market network is finally left alone without having to worry about the pharmaceutical industry or other corporate interests stealing away some of the few honest jobs left for the lumpenproletariat to survive on under capitalism. Partner decriminalization with pardons and record expungements for all previous drug offenders, and we have a start. And unlike liberals we don’t stop at cannabis decriminalization, we demand the decriminalization of every single drug in existence.

We also should fight to deregulate the pharmaceutical industry. As harmful as it is for big pharma to be over-prescribing medications for profit, regulatory limits on opioid prescriptions have actually been among the leading causes for the current so-called opioid “epidemic” as people lose their prescriptions and move to the black market for alternatives.

But how do we deal with the “bad” drugs? Open and honest education. Most importantly that includes de-stigmatization. So much propaganda has been thrown around over the decades that many have an uglier view of drug use than is often the reality. Even for drugs that do have negative side effects, open, honest, and non-judgemental communication can go a long ways towards harm reduction. Websites like Erowid.org and Bluelight.org are fantastic resources for freely educating the public on a large variety of drugs.

Of course even with all the knowledge of what these drugs are supposed to do in their pure forms there are always cases of people cutting drugs with other substances or cases of flat out substitution. Keeping an ear to the streets and knowing what popular substitutions are can go a long way towards helping figure out how to care for those cases. Tools such as the Bad Batch Alert app can help drug users communicate within their own communities, warning each other when they find cases of drug tampering. Of course you can always test the drugs yourself using such things as fentanyl test strips and Ehrlich’s reagent. If one knows what possible substances one has consumed, it is easier to reverse or treat an overdose. This is true regardless of whether one’s drug of choice has been tampered with or not.

As far as treating overdoses it is important to remember that we are not there to diagnose people, only to treat the symptoms they are facing so that they may be safe. Common overdose symptoms include overheating, anxiety, paranoia, dehydration, and semi/unconsciousness. To treat overheating or dehydration, make sure they drink water and electrolytes. You can also try removing their clothing and running a cold bath in more extreme cases. If someone is suffering from paranoia or anxiety, they should be taken to a safe environment with supportive care and calming imagery and/or activities. If one starts to lose consciousness though, it is maybe best to get them immediate professional medical attention. In cases of opioid usage, Narcan can be used to counter an overdose. Benzos can also be used to treat symptoms of amphetamine overdoses. For guidance in treating those suffering from a bad psychedelic trip, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic StudiesManual of Psychedelic Support and similar guidebooks are useful. For mild caffeine overdoses, “drinking water, getting mild exercise, and eating foods high in potassium or magnesium, such as bananas or dark leafy greens” should do the trick as you await the caffeine to exit your body but for more severe overdoses it is best to visit your local hospital where they can keep an eye on your heart rate and give you laxatives or pump your stomach as necessary.

If it is known that a particular dealer is cutting their product than it is useful to let other users know. Groups such as the Black Panthers used to confront fraudulent and violent dealers and drive them out of business. Doing such while supporting and promoting untampered drug sources helps to keep drug users safer while driving down violence in the industry.

Since the creation and demise of Silk Road, many other dark web marketplaces have surfaced providing a more secure way to buy and sell drugs on a mass scale. With guides on how to ship safely via government or private mail services, customer reviews to weed out shoddy products, and a wide selection to choose from, the dark web has been a haven for those looking to expand their reach. This is why we must continue to bring attention to Ross Ulbricht’s case and fight against internet censorship. Ultimately this means ditching corporate and state internet sources altogether in favor of autonomous internet networks.

Another important form of harm reduction is clean needle exchanges. Access to clean needles is proven to drive down the rate of infectious diseases such as HIV. Standing outside one’s local methadone clinic and passing out clean needles until you get kicked off of the property or starting a needle exchange out of your house in an area where use rates are high are good ways to distribute. In a pinch when clean needles are completely unavailable, one can rinse old needles through with water for at least 30 seconds, rinse again with bleach or coca cola for another 30 seconds, and then again with water for a final 30 seconds before reusing. This is said to effectively lower HIV risk but should only be used in emergency, opting for new needles whenever available.

Grassroots safe injection sites also play a vital role. Teaching people how to safely inject not only helps drive down disease and avoid injury but it also provides users more autonomy. In cases where a user relies on their partner to inject for them, such knowledge can provide that user with the autonomy to leave that relationship if it becomes abusive.

In cases where a user wants to get clean, support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous offer a wonderful model built on anarchist praxis. This sort of mutual aid can extend beyond group therapy and individual sponsorship however. Grassroots recovery support can stand as a much needed alternative to the corporate rehabilitation institution model, allowing for much more individualized care. Such support can come in the form of shelter or rent assistance, food, medicine, comfort, distraction, or company.

At the opposite end of creating safe injection sites and other safe spaces for users is the need to create sober spaces for those who need them. Some people have triggers around certain drugs for various reasons and/or are former addicts and choose not to be around such substances. These spaces also allow those in recovery to have social circles which do not revolve around vices which they are attempting to break.

At the end of the day, we will never stop people from engaging in drug use. It is something we naturally seek out whether for fun, stability, or escape. Alleviating poverty and alienation by abolishing capitalism and the state will also alleviate the need for escape for many but not all. Instead all we can do is make sure to reduce harm for those who still choose to indulge in whatever vices they choose.

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