What Can You Do to Advocate for Harm Reduction and Drug Policy Reform Here in Tennessee?

If you’re reading this, chances have it you probably support harm reduction or drug policy reform, if not both. While you likely wish things were different, there’s only one way to actively accelerate social change other than the inevitable passage of time — advocacy. 

Google defines “advocacy” as “public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy.” Here’s one example of harm reduction advocacy: creating a brochure that explains the basics of harm reduction, describes examples of it, and tells readers why adopting harm reduction-friendly practices is a good idea; after printing the brochure out, copies are distributed to laypeople throughout the distributor’s local community. 

There are countless forms of harm reduction and drug policy reform advocacy. Few are objectively better than one another, though all have unique pros and cons. As such, all forms of advocacy can be better than others depending on how they’re being used — I think advocates should always be situationally sensitive.

Local News Agencies Are Valuable

Keep an eye on local news agencies’ most recent releases. You should keep tabs on at least several local news agencies, preferably those in and around your current area of residence. Subscribing to at least a few elsewhere is also a good idea.

When you find articles or broadcasts that favor the progression of harm reduction and drug policy either on a national level here in the United States, a state level, or even a local level, try reaching out to these agencies and identify whether you think they had a positive or negative effect on advancing harm reduction or drug policy. 

To define what I mean by “negative,” negative pieces include those that sensationalize drugs, spread misinformation about them, or damage our collective cause to advance harm reduction and drug policy reform.

Whether you’re looking to (reinforce/punish) the publication of harm reduction-(positive/negative) or drug policy reform-(positive/negative) pieces, you should always seek help from other advocates who you’re connected with. When one of your advocacy group’s members locates a piece that one of you wants to reply to, each of you should write a letter to the news agency in question for added effectiveness. 

The person who initially floated this idea to me said it may prove useful to send multiple replies from different identities. Of course, this isn’t illegal, but could very well contribute positively to our cause. Only you can determine if doing so is within your ethical boundaries — honestly, I’m still on the fence about it.

Coming Out as a Person Who Uses Drugs

Although sexuality and drug use are two entirely different things, just as people can out themselves as bisexual — I, too, am a member of the Alphabet Gang — widely outing oneself as a drug user can prove similarly difficult. Of course, there are many downsides to outing yourself as a drug user. If we all out ourselves as persons who use drugs (PWUD) — not that any such widespread, preplanned coordination would be feasible — the stigma associated with drug use is likely to start fading away. 

However, you should understand that everything you do will reflect on the other few people who have come out as PWUD. These people have already risked outcast, relationships, criminal justice problems, work opportunities, friendships, and much more. 

As such, you shouldn’t come out as a PWUD if you’re not in a good place to do so. Soon enough, fortunately, the stigma surrounding drug use won’t be as strong. The more people who do decide to come out as PWUD will make coming out easier, so, by coming out, we’re helping drug users as a whole.

This should go without saying, but you’ll be less likely to make others look bad if you’re responsible, well thought-out, maintain employment, and so on. 

Again — if you decide to do this, make sure you won’t make others look bad in the process. 

Realistically speaking, I know at least some drug users would take initiative, but those people would likely be of a more-responsible, go-getter nature. In other words, getting the people who most frequently and most intensively make us look bad — for the record, I’ve made us, as drug users, look bad countless times — would prove difficult, likely rendering our efforts better channeled via another effort.

Befriend or Get to Know the Following People and Places

Some people and entities are inherently more drug-friendly than other people and entities. These include law enforcement agencies, law enforcement officers, correctional officers, wardens, jails, drug rehabilitation facilities, prevention coalitions, churches, libraries, health departments, public defenders, parole boards, etc. 

By cultivating relationships with these people and places, you’ll generally be in a better position than most people to influence them. 

Understand you’ll get further with those who are already more drug-friendly or drug user-friendly. Still, I’d argue that our collective efforts would be better spent in areas that are more drug-averse or drug user-averse.

Never Spend Time Trying to Change Others’ Minds on Social Media

This is self-explanatory. Arguing with others doesn’t get you far, especially on social media. This is because people on social media are often set in their ways regarding hot-button issues like abortion, gun control, or how society treats drug use. 

Trying to advance your cause by attempting to persuade these people either wastes your time and gets you nowhere or results in people thinking worse about your cause. 

The unconventional measures that harm reduction-friendly policies propose don’t seem like good ideas upon first glance. Because social media doesn’t lend itself to answering complex, multi-faceted questions — or even hearing them out in the first place — spending time trying to change others’ minds, especially on social media, isn’t a good idea.

If you do try to attempt this, your posts should be placed in highly-visible areas, must be easy to understand, must be non-argumentative, and must not be placed in communities that are inherently or largely against such ideas already — sharing posts in more moderate areas may be a better use of your time.

Ultimately, the only reasons why I post on social media about harm reduction or drugs in general is to expand my network, relentlessly self-promote my writing, or boost my chances of finding gainful employment in this harm reduction space. I believe that posting to social media with the goal of changing others’ minds is nothing short of a waste of time.

Activating Drug Dealers by Giving Them Harm Reduction Supplies

Many people who use illicit opioids via injection, for example, like myself would much rather be able to source syringes from the same place they purchase their opioids of choice from than having to visit syringe exchanges, pharmacies, or — what often happens in rural Tennessee, where I am — elsewhere on the black market. 

Syringe, likely used, found on the ground with the plunger pulled roughly halfway back. The syringe itself is empty.
Syringe litter

Dealers who offer clean syringes to customers, whether it be for free or not, can cultivate and maintain a competitive advantage.

In areas where clean, free syringes are available, dealers aren’t likely to source syringes in an above-ground, legal manner. Rather, they’re more likely to accept syringes from below-ground resources, such as from one of their customers, for example. This is something I’ve done, myself.

Activating drug dealers by providing them with syringes, naloxone, and other harm reduction supplies is a good way to advocate for harm reduction because:

People who activate dealers in this way should also educate them, if possible, about the basics of harm reduction. Ideally, these aforementioned activators should provide dealers with hard copies of educational material in the form of brochures, pamphlets, or even single, printed-off, black-and-white sheets of basic harm reduction information.

In my experience, dealers aren’t as interested in learning about harm reduction as they are the prospect of building a competitive advantage. I’m not saying dealers are heartless, soulless criminals — I just think humans are more interested in capitalizing on opportunities that benefit them in the now rather than advancing abstract ideologies and the very-potential benefits that may come from them.

Also, even if dealers you come across are interested in the ideology of harm reduction, let alone adopting it and practicing it, they should be — at least I’d hope any business-minded person would be — averse to supporting something that would ideally cut them out of contention (i.e., harm reductionists generally support safe supply, which involves things like allowing doctors to prescribe pharmaceutical-quality heroin; this would unarguably harm any illicit drug market’s bottom line).

In Conclusion

Advocating for causes is time-consuming and often frustrating. Further, many people don’t advocate in effective ways. One of the number-one ways that people think is an effective way to be an advocate is by posting on social media. In most cases, this is simply ineffective, if not wholly counterproductive. 

These aren’t the only ways to advocate for harm reduction or drug policy reform. However, these five methods are all solid means of advancing our cause as harm reductionists or drug policy reformers — if not both.

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