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An Interview with Drug Policy Reform Trailblazer Deborah Peterson Small

Sharda Sekaran

I first met Deborah Small in 2000, when I was working as a consultant for the Drug Policy Alliance and my job was to plan programming for the Shadow Conventions, public events that were the brainchild of Arianna Huffington, intended to highlight important social issues that were being overlooked at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. I was immediately in awe of Deborah, with her profound critical thinking skills, persuasive public speaking ability and strikingly Afrocentric fashion sense. When she offered me the opportunity to be her Associate Director of Public Policy and Community Outreach as my contract with DPA was finishing, I jumped at the opportunity, working for several years as her right hand.

Deborah went on to found Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, a public policy research and advocacy organization committed to addressing the disproportionate impact of punitive drug policies on poor communities of color. The mission of Break the Chains is to build the movement in communities of color in support of drug policy reform with the goal of replacing our failed drug polices with alternatives based in science, compassion, public health and human rights.

I recently had an opportunity to talk to Deborah about her pioneering work and her thoughts about the current state of drug policy reform.


Public opinion around addiction and punishment is shifting. What are your thoughts about the moment we are in today?

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Harrison Narcotics Act and the beginning of drug prohibition. What’s interesting about the moment we are in today is that in some ways, it bears resemblance to where we were 100 years ago. Back then, the majority of opiate addiction involved people being maintained by doctors for pain relief. They were primarily women and also soldiers from the civil war. Actually, the first Supreme Court cases interpreting the Narcotics Act involved prosecutions of doctors for violating the new drug laws by continuing to care for their patients.

Today, a lot of opiate addiction is also pharmaceutically related. Some of this is due to people not having proper medical care or poor health benefits, working longer hours for less pay because they are struggling economically and taking pills for pain because they have to work. There is an opportunity to talk about alternatives to punitive prohibition, including many things we’ve done in the past.

For instance, there was medical maintenance for drug users in this country until the mid 1920s. People act like heroin maintenance and safe injection rooms are so beyond the pale but that is essentially what was being done with substances like morphine back then. People were receiving treatment grounded in pharmacology. It’s considered shocking and radical that this is being recommended again today but none of this is really new.


What do you think about public perception that the current climate around overdose represents a shift because it seems to be concentrated mostly on white people?

From the very beginning, conversations about drug abuse have been highly racialized. Every now and then, the public rediscovers that white people use drugs but that’s always been true. Prohibition enables illusions about the reality of drug use. If there were laws against fornication and adultery and it was mostly black people who went to prison for violating them, everyone would know it was wrong. The same is true for drugs. It was never the case that white people were less involved.

Class also plays an important role. As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars wind down, I can envision the criminal justice system expanding to include more poor whites from economically depressed towns returning to an economy that has no jobs for them. It’s shocking to note how little attention Governor Shumlin from Vermont got for his State of State speech. Here you have the head of a state talking about overdose and the majority of the mainstream media chose to talk about Christie’s traffic closure in New Jersey instead. But it’s worth noting that these are regular, working class white people dying of overdoses in Vermont, not the rich and famous.

There could be more opportunities for coalition-building between inner city communities and suburban and rural communities. I predict over time we will see racial disparities in the criminal justice system lessen as more poor whites get caught up – from mid-size towns and rural neighborhoods. New York is an example – just a decade ago 7 of the poorest black and brown neighborhoods in NYC  supplied the bulk of state prisoners. Reforms in the city have changed that but now more people are entering the system from upstate cities like Albany, Buffalo and Syracuse. If we don’t change the whole thrust of what we are doing, we will only change who is filling the beds.


What about the tide toward sentencing reform, including an endorsement for moving in this direction from the White House?

I think Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow , was fabulous. It’s been incredibly good for educating people about the impact of the drug war but it’s not the best frame for developing policy reform because addressing mass incarceration is insufficient. I worry limiting the focus to reducing incarceration fits the goals of those concerned about budget cutting where anything short of physical incarceration counts as reform. In this scenario one can reform the system by shifting costs from the state to individuals, including the cost of state supervision, such as probation and parole. These systems are less of a burden to the state but still present significant barriers to individuals – especially the many people who should not have been in the system in the first place.

If we are not dealing with the reasons why people are arrested, it’s not the way to go. And remember, there’s not only a war on drugs but also a war on the poor. For instance, we may not lock someone up for being poor but we will drug test them as a condition for access to benefits, which is a form of punishment. The frame we need to be using for policy work should be a frame for reducing coercion and punishment, not just physical incarceration.


What’s your opinion on the role of drug courts?

This goes back to the problem of keeping the frame on mass incarceration. I made a bad call on drug courts myself because I wanted to keep people out of prison. But unfortunately this took the focus away from keeping people from being arrested. Drug courts on their own have not really accomplished the goal of moving us away from punishment. They are just a kinder, gentler form of coercion and the same biases persist. Even with drug courts, there is racial disparity in who gets diverted and the length of their penalty. If you’re not reducing the influx of people coming into the system, you’re really not reducing racial disparity.

There are twice as many people under state supervision than those who are incarcerated. Seven million people are under some form of criminal justice supervision on any given day in the U.S. Their lives are constricted and restrained, whether or not they are physically behind bars. The more that number grows, the more people whose basic liberties and ability to engage in the economy are constrained.


What are you working on now?

What I am focusing on now, which is related to criminalization, is the relationship of black communities to punishment. I have been doing this work for a long time and it occurred to me a couple of years ago that issues of criminal justice are not just about how we are treated externally, but are also a consequence of our overall attitude about punishment as a way to change behavior. In the long run, to see significant reform, black people have to shift our willingness to accept disproportionate punishment and distinguish between punishment and discipline.

Punishment tells people what not to do. It does not enforce positive behavior but reinforces the negative. The film “12 Years a Slave” visually captured this dynamic. Black people were not only forced to accept punishment, we were also forced to impose it on each other. This had an impact individually and collectively. Black people became conditioned to ignoring each other’s pain because they were powerless to do anything about it.

When Dr. Kenneth Clark did his experiment with dolls, it sparked a strong conversation within black communities about internalized racism and the denigration of blackness. We need to have a similar conversation about our attitudes towards punishment – instead of continuing cycles of oppression, violence, incarceration and pain. We should distinguish between punishment and discipline and explore ways in which people in our community have worked with each other without coming from a punitive paradigm.

Sharda Sekaran is the managing director of communications for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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