Bringing Social Justice into the Response to the Overdose Epidemic

February 15, 2019

During my time as a recovery advocate, I have watched the movement grow and gain more acceptance as we continue to push for solutions to the worst public health crisis of our generation. Several years ago, I was educated on harm reduction and its need to be a cornerstone to a public health response for our nation’s overdose epidemic. I was drawn to harm reduction because of its roots in examining public health issues through a social justice lens. When examining the opioid epidemic through a social justice lens, we begin to see how some solutions are problematic and contribute to the reasons we ended up in this crisis.

What is harm reduction?

In simple terms, harm reduction is a set of practices and principles that aim to minimize harms associated with drug use. Harm reduction acknowledges that whether we like it or not, drug use exists, and meeting people where they are at is more effective than traditional approaches that compartmentalize the structure of treatment services or criminalize and stigmatize people who use drugs.

Harm reduction essentially acknowledges that people who use drugs are people and entitled to basic human rights, just like anyone else. Examples of harm reduction practices include safer drug use education, fentanyl testing strips, access to the opioid overdose antidote Naloxone, syringe service programs (also known as needle exchange programs or syringe access programs), and supervised injection facilities (also known as overdose prevention sites). These harm reduction interventions are invaluable solutions to combating the epidemic. Syringe service programs are proven to reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, while also reducing overdose deaths and increasing entry into substance use treatment. The greatest harm we look to reduce is the incarceration of people with a substance use disorder. Not only is this inhumane and cruel, it is also counterproductive for public safety and our society.

Why social justice?

At this point, it’s no secret that the war on drugs has failed us, and with the number of overdose deaths skyrocketing in recent years (with opioids being the main driver of these deaths), we are in immediate need of more compassionate care and progressive policies that support people who use drugs—with a special focus on marginalized communities.

The reason we must focus on communities of color is the disproportionate effect the war on drugs has had on black and brown communities. A decades-long war on drugs has ravaged Black communities, leaving too many black homes fatherless and draining the economic potential of our communities.

When the war on drugs landed in White America we saw a plea for a more compassionate response for people with substance use disorder. This left many communities of color feeling left out, and it compounded decades of trauma because as new solutions were celebrated, the damage to communities of color was not acknowledged.

As we continue to make strides to increase harm reduction practices and implement more compassionate and progressive policies, it is important to note that social justice must be embedded into the framework for this discussion. Harm reduction and social justice go hand in hand and by separating these ideas, we will end up lifting solutions that may not work or be applicable for communities of color.

It is pivotal to understand that social and racial justice should not be seen as an afterthought when addressing solutions to our epidemic, and with the celebration of Black History Month, I would like to reaffirm that harm reduction is not just a public health intervention, it is also a social justice intervention. And ultimately something all advocates regardless of label should embrace to learn more about. I encourage you to read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander if this blog post has inspired you to dig deeper than 700 words allow.

Moving forward, we must expand our perception of harm reduction as not just a public health intervention, but also as a social justice intervention. This means we are aiming to reduce the harms done to communities of color from mass incarceration, racial disparities, and ineffective drug policies.



Devin Reaves, MSW, CRS is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition in Philadelphia, PA.  He is a person living in recovery since 2007 and speaks from passion and a dedicated study on topics of the current opioid epidemic, recovery supports, harm reduction, medication assisted treatment, racial disparity and other critical topics audiences need to hear today.

He is a tireless community organizer and grassroots advocacy leader. As such, Devin has worked on expansion of access to the lifesaving drug Naloxone, implantation of 911 Good Samaritan policies in his community, and the expansions of youth oriented systems. Devin has appeared in countless interviews and added valued commentary to the critical topic of addiction recovery today.

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