White House Pursues Harm Reduction Strategy While Pushing Drug War Overseas
Latest drug control mission statement centers harm reduction, but still advocates for pressuring other countries to intensify drug policing
Published on June 17, 2022

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The head of the Office of National Drug Control policy spoke at a US Senate hearing on Wednesday, asserting that the Biden administration is aiming to stem the country’s drug overdose rates. 

Office head Dr. Rahul Gupta’s words came months after the White House released its National Drug Control Strategy report. The document hypes the administration’s support of certain harm reduction tactics, while doubling down on the need for heightened surveillance of drug cartels in Mexico and other countries.

The report places a fair emphasis on supporting harm reduction groups that operate programs like needle exchanges and other methods of harm reduction — to mention, guaranteeing a steady supply to such groups of the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone. It even encourages public payers and private health insurance companies to “consider allowing coverage for harm reduction services.”

Gupta said that we can expect drugs that are even more powerful than fentanyl to hit the US supply.

“A Pandora's box has been opened,” he testified Wednesday, as reported by NPR. “We can expect to see much more potent substances [in the future].”

However, the government’s plan stops short of endorsing the kinds of harm reduction tactics that advocates say are necessary for stemming the overdose crisis. These include supervised safe injection sites, where users can shoot up under the watch of trained professionals who can act immediately should an overdose take place. Currently, there are only two state-authorized safe injection sites in the country, both of which are located in New York and opened late last year. In their first three weeks of operation alone, those locations reversed 60 potentially life-threatening drug overdoses.

Canada is actually out in front of the US on the issue. Vancouver opened Insite, the continent’s first supervised injection site, back in 2003.

The document estimates that 65 percent of the people incarcerated in the United States has a substance use disorder, and that they have a “meaningfully elevated” risk of dying from a drug overdose post-incarceration, as compared to people who have never been sent to jail. It recommends increasing treatment options for both incarcerated people and those who are re-entering society after serving time.

But the report is also explicit in its conclusion that the US must impact supply of drugs, and not just provide more services to users inside the country. It counsels that the United States must use its influence to compel other nations to sink more money into the War on Drugs. It lists among its goals a poppy eradication program on Mexican lands carried out in collaboration with the Mexican government. In so doing, it hopes to diminish what the estimated $426-652 billion dollars earned by transcontinental crime organizations on the sale of illegal drugs—which comprises more than a third of such groups’ total profits.

Follow Caitlin on Instagram, and catch her Spanish-language podcast Crónica on Spotify and Mixcloud. 

Caitlin Donohue
Caitlin Donohue is a Bay Area-raised, Mexico City-based cannabis writer and author of She Represents: 44 Women Who Are Changing Politics and the World. Her weekly show Crónica on Radio Nopal explores Mexican marijuana culture and politics in the prohibition era. Follow Caitlin on IG @byrdwatch.
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