Does “Public Health” Really Want To Own Addiction?

Editor’s Note: Guest blogger and medical anthropologist Kim Sue returned from a recent conference entitled “From Punishment to Wellness: A Public Health Approach to Women and the War on Drugs” with some questions about the coherence of the public health paradigm.

To celebrate the release of a joint report published by the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) entitled a Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy, WORTH (Women on The Rise Telling Herstory) organized a conference focusing on women and the War on Drugs. The conference brought together formerly incarcerated women, direct service providers, researchers, policy analysts, and advocates and activists to discuss how to move from a criminalization model of drug use to a public health model. “The war on drugs is more than a failure,” the organizers announced. “It has swollen the prison system, left millions of people with criminal records and damaged communities.” The one-day event was aimed at exploring “practical examples of public health alternatives,” through discussions around four main themes: prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and safety.

Thinking through public health at the New York Academy of Medicine.
Thinking through public health at the New York Academy of Medicine.

What was interesting to me during the panel sessions and the break-out groups was the relative absence of public health professionals and clinicians in these discussions (one notable exception was Professor Lynn Roberts of Hunter College’s Department of Community Health). While “public health” was one of the buzzwords of the day, it seemed to stand in for other things that the conference attendees were actually more interested in talking about: structural violence, poverty, racism, patriarchy—often referred to as the “structural determinants of health.” One possibility is that “public health” was being used rhetorically as a means to talk publicly and politically about race, class, gender and various axes of social inequality under “public health’s” cloak of respectability.

There was some discussion of specific legislation and public-health oriented programming by several of the speakers—for example, Good Samaritan Acts, needle exchange programs, the decriminalization of sex work, and bills against the criminalization of HIV status—but the conference neglected how the massive apparatus of the War on Drugs endeavor will be “public health-ified” on a large scale. What will be the unintended consequences of doing so?

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