With funding from the Open Society Foundation, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Social Work (UMSSW) and Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and last winter published a report examining the impact of the War on Drugs on African American communities in Maryland. According to the report, any efforts to decriminalize drugs must include reparations for African American communities to rectify decades of racial and social injustice.
“The Communal Impacts of Drug Criminalization in Maryland“ sheds light on the profound significance of addressing systemic racism. This research might resonate deeply with our collective search for understanding and continued discussion in the wake of the police-involved deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, which sparked a nationwide reckoning with systemic racism. It is a stark reminder of its ongoing impact following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in our own city.
“The research was prompted by the alarming opioid overdose epidemic, which has caused widespread devastation,” said Natalie Flath, a JHU doctoral candidate and UMSSW researcher who coauthored the report, in an email to Technical.ly. “In response, there is a pressing desire for quick solutions. However, it is crucial to recognize that addressing structural issues requires comprehensive and systemic approaches.”
“By delving into historical and cultural recollections, our interviews shed light on perspectives that have traditionally been excluded from drug policy discussions,” added Flath, who co-wrote the study with Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS) research director Lawrence Grandpre and University of Maryland, Baltimore research project coordinator Judith Park. “These insights provide a deeper understanding of the foundation on which we currently stand and highlight the necessity of a peacemaking process to address the persistent inequalities stemming from punitive drug policies, such as the ‘War on Drugs,’ that continue to afflict us today.”
The symptoms of systemic issues (taken on in conversation by some notable Baltimoreans in our Thriving series) are evident throughout cities like Baltimore, where economic disparities, limited access to quality jobs and healthcare, disproportionate targeting and profiling by law enforcement, wage gaps, income inequality, restricted access to capital and business opportunities and disinvestment in predominantly Black neighborhoods persist. This research provides valuable insights into the communal effects of drug criminalization, further highlighting the urgent need to confront and dismantle systemic racism in all its forms.
“We have discovered that the targeted hyper-incarceration resulting from drug criminalization has hindered communities’ ability to exercise self-determination, thereby exacerbating the effects of White supremacy and anti-Blackness,” said Grandpre in a press release, further outlining such consequences as the breakdown of family and community bonds, psychological and spiritual detachment and the erosion of Black civil society institutions that facilitate connections.
Drug use is not an inherent symptom of systemic racism. However, the way drug laws and enforcement have been implemented and disproportionately affected certain communities is often diagnosed as a symptom of systemic racism. Historically, drug policies disproportionately targeted and impacted minority communities — particularly African American and Hispanic ones — leading to higher rates of arrest, conviction, and incarceration.
Technical.ly’s audience comprises dedicated technologists and entrepreneurs actively tackling these issues on a daily basis. In a recent article, we explored the effectiveness of the Baltimore City Health Department’s newly launched data dashboard in providing information about opioid overdoses and deaths. Flath and Park’s report noted the surprise of how little interviewees talked about overdose; our article, which included a conversation with a longtime medic, revealed that relying solely on trackers and dashboards may be insufficient, even in a city known for its data-driven approach.
This raises the question: Could the researchers be onto something? Is the issue worth zooming out on to focus on something like reparations?
LBS has already taken proactive measures by going beyond data and posing crucial questions about implementing reparations. This prompts us to consider whether a comprehensive approach, such as the one outlined in its recent collaborative report, will address the multifaceted nature of this issue.
Some key takeaways from the research:
- Implement reparations to address the community harms caused by the War on Drugs.
- Foster community-led initiatives for decriminalization reforms.
- Recognize that decriminalization reforms must consider the broader context and interconnected nature of interventions.
Considering all the symptoms of systemic racism, report takeaways and their manifestations in Baltimore, we put the question to Chat GPT: Should Baltimore tackle the symptoms of systemic racism one by one? The response was as follows, shortened for clarity: