The Two Women of Color Leading the Fight to End the Drug War

By Victoria Kim 02/07/18

“It’s a moment of women working to dismantle the structures that keep us divided...We’re not just fighting for harm reduction. We’re fighting for love and justice.”

statue of liberty marijuana

The momentum in the United States is finally in favor of drug policy reform, or ending the decades-long “War on Drugs.” More cities and states than ever are considering supervised injection spaces and are increasing access to naloxone (the opioid overdose antidote). Legal cannabis markets keep growing each year.

And now, some of the leaders of this movement to turn back harmful drug policies are, for the first time, women. In fact, the people leading two essential organizations of the drug policy reform movement, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Harm Reduction Coalition, are both women of color.

This year is pivotal for progress, said Monique Tula, who leads the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC). “It’s a moment of women working to dismantle the structures that keep us divided,” she told Maia Szalavitz for Vice. “We’re not just fighting for harm reduction. We’re fighting for love and justice.”

The Harm Reduction Coalition promotes harm reduction principles that aim to minimize the harmful effects of drug use “rather than simply ignore or condemn them.” Through community efforts, advocacy and training, the organization has been a key advocate for public health initiatives like needle exchange and access to naloxone (overdose prevention).

The goal of the Drug Policy Alliance, led by Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno since 2017, is to end the drug war. The organization makes its impact through legislation and research, whether it is gathering support for cannabis legalization, or publishing a report about why the U.S. should decriminalize drug use.

While working for Human Rights Watch in Colombia about a decade ago, Sánchez-Moreno saw firsthand the global impact of the drug war. As the daughter of a Peruvian mother and her father, an American diplomat, she was raised to see the drug war through a critical lens.

The next logical step is to decriminalize drug use and possession, said Sánchez-Moreno. Under this policy, drug use would be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal one; i.e. no one could be arrested for drug use/possession alone. “The harms are so dramatic and the benefits are zilch,” she said. “There’s nothing you can possibly say to argue for criminalization of simple drug possession.”

Monique Tula, who has led HRC since late 2016, recalled the impact that her father’s drug use had on her trajectory. Raised in poverty, he came from a family with a history of mental health issues. He developed a problem with heroin and crack cocaine. Tula did not earn a college degree until middle age, but nevertheless got far in her career in harm reduction advocacy. “Because it is my truth—and my family’s history and struggle with substance use is what made me relevant,” she told Szalavitz.

Tula admits that it was hard for her to be compassionate toward her father about his drug use. “Harm reduction is often most difficult to practice with those you love the most,” she said. “It was evidence that the drug war was doing harm, but it took me a minute to connect it directly to my family’s experience.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr