How Outwardly Left-Leaning Harm Reductionists Hurt Our Cause

Read more like this at Tennessee Harm Reduction.

Edit: Note that this article is about rural West and Middle Tennessee, in which there is no harm reduction infrastructure, and not about harm reduction in general. As a ground-level, grassroots, practicing harm reductionist, I believe that approaching my fellow rural Tennesseans with harm reduction-positive ideas without any attached social equity movements, at least initially, is key to spurring their timely adoption.

The modern American political landscape is, as you know, more divisive than ever. Causes that have partisan ties are unlikely to be adopted by people who think differently.

After attending two harm reduction-related conferences and spending about three months on #HarmReduction Twitter, I’ve found that harm reductionists tend to hold left-leaning views. We often use divisive rhetoric that pushes away right-leaning persons and others who aren’t left-leaning. We also conflate harm reduction with Black Lives Matter, anti-capitalistic sentiments, pro-LGBT, and other social justice efforts.

This hurts our cause as harm reductionists.

In places like New York or California, where largely-left-leaning people are the majority, this is fine. But in places like rural Tennessee, where I live, our efforts as harm reductionists will not be adopted by locals unless we’re right-leaning, or, at the very least, nonpartisan in our rhetoric.

I’m a long-term, often-problematic drug user of over nine years and a practicing harm reductionist of three years. As a “practicing harm reductionist,” I do things like distribute syringes, naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and other supplies to people who use drugs; educate people about safe drug use practices; create brochures and other educational material and distribute them to law enforcement, drug users, and laypeople alike; publish educational and informative drug-related articles online.

I got into harm reduction because I’ve spent some 20 of my 24 years alive around drugs. My mom was a super-problematic drug user. I’ve got a friend doing a 12-year bid in prison for meth possession. I’ve used drugs nearly every day for a decade and have experienced countless problems because of it.

That’s why I got into harm reduction.

I believe that, in most cases, people adopt harm reduction-positive views because they’re either largely-left-leaning or because they’ve experienced addiction or problematic drug use, whether they’ve seen family members or friends with drug problems or personally experienced it like me.

Here in rural Northwest Tennessee, we have absolutely zero programs that help drug users like me. We’ve got unhelpful, exclusionary 12-step meetings, outdated rehabs, and… that’s about it. We do have a Regional Overdose Prevention Specialist (ROPS) who distributes naloxone and teaches people how to use it, but ROPS struggle to reach people who need help the most — drug users like me.

On a national level, if we examine states that have implemented harm reduction infrastructure, they’re damn near all blue. What about the states that are home to drug users who need the most help? They’re all red.

Let’s look at Tennessee on a county-by-county level. Shelby County, home of Memphis, has a syringe services program and is home to other resources that help drug users, but it’s a blue county. Davidson County, home of Nashville, has a syringe services program and other such resources, too — but it’s blue, yet again.

People who need harm reduction the most are frequently in rural areas, which happen to be populated by largely-right-leaning persons. We need to break through to them to have our cause as harm reductionists adopted. If we want syringe services programs or, hell, even places to legally, safely dispose of used syringes, we must shed our outwardly largely-left-leaning ties as harm reductionists.

Largely-left-leaning people are already likely to adopt harm reduction-positive ideologies. Largely-right-leaning people are not.

We increase the likelihood of having practices, policies, or ideas adopted by getting more people in a given area to support them. Simple enough, right?

Conflating things like anti-capitalism, Black Lives Matter, pro-LGBT efforts, and support for Democratic presidential candidates with harm reduction severely reduces the likelihood of largely-right-leaning people in rural Tennessee adopting harm reduction-positive practices, policies, and ideas.

It’s that simple.

For the record, I am a fan of fighting racialized drug policies, as they’ve disproportionately harmed all drug users, regardless of color. Supporting the revision of such policies directly helps me, brings equity to drug users, and finally moves toward restoring the racial equity balance in the United States—something that’s been out of whack for hundreds of years. These are all things I want to achieve.

However, if we don’t frame these efforts in a way that appeals to the overwhelmingly-White majority of Lewis County, Tennessee, for example, which is home to 97.07% Whites and just 1.45% Blacks, how will we get them on board with making racialized drug policies a thing of the past?

I recognize that capitalism has created widespread inequality. The economic and political order has systematically fucked so many of us, including me.

While I don’t think we’ll be ready for a mostly- or entirely-socialistic economy for some hundreds of years, I do recognize that adopting more socialistic-leaning policies and programs would help long-disadvantaged classes of people like drug users.

As we know, however, “socialism” is nothing short of a buzz word. Attached are the most negative connotations we could possibly imagine. Sporting anti-capitalistic sentiments in conjuction with pro-drug messages in places like rural Tennessee will oh-so-reliably prevent harm reduction-positive ideas from being adopted here.

Anti-capitalism efforts are viewed as extreme here in rural Tennessee. They’re unwelcome. And they don’t serve to help drug users above all else—as someone who advocates for the better treatment of drug users, that’s what I value more than any other desired result.

Advocating for the change of racialized drug policies very much does directly help people who use drugs and isn’t at all far-fetched—in the minds of residents of rural Tennessee, that is.

I’ve spent 20 of my soon-to-be 25 years around drugs: 10 growing up around my super-problematic drug user of a mother and 10 as a near-daily drug user myself.

Although I stand to benefit from social equity efforts that support sex workers—I did sex work for about four years—and members of the LGBT community—I’m bisexual, myself—I’m most interested in bringing about effective public health policies, programs, resources, and approaches that treat drug users like me fairly.

Many others who call themselves “harm reductionists,” a label that I, too, claim, consider harm reduction to be equal parts helping drug users and advancing social justice movements.

To avoid confusion, I think we need to develop a short, one- or two-word phrase like “harm reduction” to represent people who value helping drug users above advocating for social equity efforts.

Long-term drug user, writer, practicing harm reductionist. Lifelong resident of rural Tennessee. Director of Tennessee Harm Reduction.