Deborah Peterson Small founded Break the Chains in 2004 to get communities of color involved in drug policy reform and engage them in combating oppressive drug laws that often target disadvantaged people of color, landing them in prison for trivial drug offenses. Small, who was director of public policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, has worked for the rights of HIV-positive people through her vigorous support of harm reduction programs and advocacy for the rights of prisoners. At a benefit in April, the New York City–based advocacy group Housing Works will honor Small with a 2007 Keith D. Cylar award for AIDS activism.
Nicole Joseph: What's wrong with our drug laws?
Deborah Peterson Small: We are now more than 25 years into the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. We know that at least two-thirds of cases of HIV infection in the African-American community are linked to drug use, and the same is true in the Hispanic community. And yet we still do not have a national policy for federal funding of needle exchange.
It's pure ideology that keeps us from doing the very thing we know we should be doing to help save lives. We ignore science, we ignore facts, we ignore common sense just in order to fulfill this sort of knee-jerk belief about what it means to be tough on crime or tough on drugs, or send the right message.
Joseph: How does this affect people with HIV?
Small: One of the most horrible, immoral things about our drug laws is that we've used them as justification to not enact the kinds of interventions that are needed to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. The level of drug-related HIV in this country is more than triple the rate of almost every major European country. This is because as soon as [European countries] realized that they had an AIDS epidemic—that it was a blood-borne disease and that it was linked to injection drug use—they immediately established syringe exchange programs and other kinds of programs to make it less likely that drug users would acquire the disease or pass it on to others.
There are aspects of our drug policies that make no sense whatsoever. I've been in places in West Virginia and Oklahoma where people are not able to get access to HIV drugs because they can't prove that they're abstinent from drugs or alcohol. We're still punishing people that way.
Joseph: Why the focus on getting communities of color involved?
Small: Even though communities of color are the ones who are most affected by the drug war and drug law enforcement, we haven't really been a significant factor in the movement to change drug policy. And it wouldn't be possible for so many people to be arrested, convicted, prosecuted and sent away for relatively minor drug offenses if the community didn't tolerate it.
Joseph: What are you doing to combat this problem?
Small: Our goal is to generate a healthy intolerance of racially unjust laws. Part of the reason we call the organization Break the Chains is because it's really about having people let go of ways of thinking and being that don't really work for them. We needed to acknowledge the harms that drugs and drug addiction have caused to poor people of color, and at the same time point to the need to reform our current drug laws because they're only making those harms worse. Over the last few years, we've organized Break the Chains conferences in different parts of the country to bring together people of color and educate them.
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