In 2018, more than 1,100 people died of drug overdoses in Philadelphia. People affected by this crisis of premature death are organizing to save their own lives, often taking a harm reduction approach. “Harm reduction is a movement led by drug users to keep people safe, give them agency, remove stigmatization and marginalization, give people platforms who might not have had one, and allow people to recognize their voice and learn how to use it,” says David Tomlinson, founding member of Philadelphia Drug Users’ Union, a Future Fund grantee. “It’s a social justice movement that’s based on equity, not equality.”
Project SAFE, a Gender Justice Fund and Racial & Economic Justice Fund grantee, works with people engaged in street economies. “We view harm reduction as a philosophical approach to a set of societal and legal problems,” says Gus Grannan, Project SAFE’s harm reduction coordinator. “It deals with people at the intersections of a lot of different stigmas and legal statuses that work to minimize the physical, psychological harm that people are exposed to.”
Harm reduction can occur on an individual level (administering Narcan to someone who is overdosing) or a policy level. “We see a lot of the harms that we help to address, both around sex work and around drug use, as caused by the legal structures around them rather than the activities themselves,” says Grannan. “One of our long-term goals is to work for decriminalization of sex work and decriminalization of all drug use. When we do work with other organizations and we make alliances, we recognize that that’s not going to happen next week, but that is our vision.”
Philadelphia Drug Users’ Union and Project SAFE collaborate with Racial & Economic Justice Fund grantee ACT UP Philadelphia, SOL Collective, and ally groups in other regions to demand overdose prevention sites where people can use drugs in a sanitary environment. In an April 25 Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, Project SAFE members Aisha Mohammed and Amna Shaikh made the case for overdose prevention sites as tools for racial justice: “Overdose prevention sites address [the race-based harms of the war on drugs] by offering communities of color an alternative to public use, which exposes them to the risk of arrest and incarceration. … They help underserved communities access much-needed services for addiction to any drug—not just the type of drug that is more closely associated with use by white people.”
People organizing to open overdose prevention sites won a victory in October when a federal judge ruled that Safehouse, a proposed site in Philadelphia, does not violate federal law—the first win in a series of legal challenges.