Boston science marchers demand ‘harm reduction’ for people who use opioids

Thousands of nurses, doctors, lab technicians, environmental professionals, computer programmers and teachers rallied for Science on Boston Common April 22. They were responding to the gangster president’s witch-hunt of climate scientists and other threatened budgetary and military attacks.

While this was happening, a smaller contingent of revolutionary-minded scientists gained wide attention marching, handing out flyers and chanting through the crowd, demanding “Supervised Injection Facilities, Now!”

Activists with the SIFMA NOW! Coalition were joined in the march by the Boston Area Drug Users Union, New England Antifa, ACT-UP Boston and Workers World Party-Boston as the “Harm Reduction Contingent.”

Spurred to action by the alarming opioid epidemic, the Harm Reduction Contingent included doctors, treatment professionals, community activists, union leaders, housing specialists, teachers and many youth and children. This epidemic has killed tens of thousands of people while pouring billions of profits into pharmaceutical companies, police and the prison-industrial complex, cash-hungry banks and other forces of the gangster capitalist economy.

Xr. Andie Michelle Burnham, a local queer activist and harm reduction specialist who was instrumental in having the city of Gloucester, Mass., declare May 2017 “Harm Reduction Month,” was an organizer of the contingent. Burnham explains in literature that the harm-reduction model takes a politically “radical” approach in promoting scientific, evidence-based prevention of overdoses, stopping the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, and improving the health and wellbeing of active opioid users.

The harm reduction model is entirely contrary to the lock-em-up “War on Drugs” which has filled U.S. jails and especially targeted Black, Latinx, Indigenous, trans, leftist and poor workers since the time J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI to today’s bigot Attorney General Sessions’ war on civil rights and marijuana.

Harm reduction also conflicts with the general “mandatory abstinence” school of programs. These are mostly based on stigmatization, punishment, confessionals and judgmental shaming. Every arm of the capitalist state apparatus, from court sentences to prisons, cops, homeless “shelters” and social service agencies exclusively pushes “mandatory abstinence,” say the harm reduction activists.

“The reason we are out here fighting.” Burnham told Workers World, “is to uplift the voices and tend to the needs of a universally marginalized group. People who use drugs (PWUD) are at the intersects of all communities. The stigma laid against them is often stacked on top of many other layers of identity stigma. These folks are pushed out of homes, denied basic human rights, and are criminalized.

“Drug use is not by any means inherently wrong, and the way we [capitalist society] often approach it is classist at best. We demand an end to the racist, classist War On Drugs™! We demand proven harm reduction methods such as syringe access, naloxone access, supervised injection facilities, drug testing kits be available free, on demand, and without apology.

“We demand an end to the stigma that stands between PWUD who experience problematic use, and safe, compassionate, science backed treatment. Uplift people who use drugs! End the stigma! Act Up!”

One week after the Science March, the Massachusetts Medical Society, many of whose members were visible and vocal at the April 22 rally, took an unprecedented, landslide vote to organizationally support the opening of clinics in Massachusetts where drug users may legally inject under medical supervision (SIF).

Various arms of the state and its political leadership denounced this decision. Dr. Barbara Herbert, president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, defended it: “It’s counterintuitive that you would let people do something that is illegal and dangerous in a setting that is safer … but in fact, there’s good scientific and epidemiologic evidence that it saves lives, and we’re in such a terrible epidemic that anything that saves lives, we want to embrace.” (Boston Globe, April 30)

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