Experts discuss solutions at town hall
Drug use and harm reduction was the topic of a recent town hall hosted by HueMan Partnership, Standard Edition Women, and a host of community partners. The event, held Dec. 11 at the Center for Changing Lives, started with keynote speaker Dr. Ronda Marie Chakolis, followed by a panel discussion and several smaller community discussions. It was moderated by Princess Titus.
Chakolis spoke on how the opioid epidemic has ravaged the Black community. She saw the effects of addiction through alcoholism on both sides of her family.
Dr. Chakolis became a pharmacist in North Minneapolis in 2009, and initially thought the opioid addiction epidemic would not affect the Black community, as she did not see Black people picking up many prescription medications.
“When I first heard about the opioid epidemic, initially I cheered because for once I knew the African American community wouldn’t be affected,” Chakolis said. “I was wrong, my colleagues were wrong. We got it wrong.”
Chakolis says Black people are three times, and Indigenous people 10 times, more likely to die from an opioid overdose than the general population. She contends that harm reduction, an approach that provides drug users with supplies and safe spots to use drugs without threat of arrest or judgment—while also giving them support to get clean—is the best way to prevent overdoses and help people get sober.
“We can’t prevent people from using certain substances like alcohol, or opioids, or even cannabis, or my favorite, coffee,” Chakolis said. “However, we can educate the public and provide people with access to resources that will allow them to seek treatment in a culturally competent way.”
A panel discussion followed Chakolis’s keynote. It included activists, medical experts, and former addicts.
The first speaker on the panel was Edward Krumpotich, chair of the MN Harm Reduction Collaborative and a former history teacher. He spent six years homeless on the streets of Minneapolis while addicted to methamphetamine but is now sober.
Krumpotich spoke on the history of criminalization of drugs and how enforcement was disproportionately aimed at people of color, as well as the failures of alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century.
He compared alcohol prohibition to the current laws on drugs. “The exact same policy to criminalize drugs has resulted in the same exact same problem, but this one has lasted three and a half decades,” Krumpotich said.
Krumpotich worked with Pearl Evans, who is in long-term addiction recovery, along with other harm reduction activists, to get language in the Omnibus Health Appropriations Bill earlier this year that legalized the possession of drug paraphernalia and allowed pharmacies to sell more than 10 clean needles at a time.
Evans, who was also a panelist, said she hopes that meeting people where they are and providing services will be the steps people need to choose to get sober.
Chakolis noted that since the decriminalization of drug paraphernalia, she sees fewer people coming into her pharmacy asking for syringes and no longer sees used syringes littered outside of her pharmacy. Panelist Kaleeca Bible spoke on how chemical dependency is often viewed as a personal choice, and how she believes it should be viewed as a disease. There is still a stigma against drug users in the medical establishment, said Bible.
“In addition to that perspective, what I’ve also seen is your chemical dependency becomes your entire body of health,” Bible said. “So, what I mean by that is that other comorbidities that might be occurring are downplayed, ignored, and kind of put to the side because of the stigma around chemical dependency.
“If you’re in pain, you’re just looking for drugs. If you’re not feeling well, it’s the withdrawal from the drugs.” Bible hopes that medical professionals will work together with the community to define what needs should be addressed regarding addiction.
Also on the panel was Sam Simmons, a licensed chemical dependency counselor. He spoke on the historical trauma of Black people and self-medication to address that trauma.
Simmons recalled how his father, an alcoholic, always needed a beer after experiencing racism at work all day, “or [the whole family] would all pay.”
While working at a chronic pain clinic, Simmons noticed Black men who wanted to get treated were usually denied in their evaluation. Simmons convinced the clinic’s White staff to hire him to do fair, culturally competent evaluations for Black men.
Simmons agreed with the others that harm reduction was the best approach to addiction, and he wants to see more cultural competency among medical staff who treat chemical dependency.
The panel also included Audua Pugh of the Jordan Area Community Council. Pugh was once a crack addict but has been sober for 19 years. She agreed with Simmons, saying generational trauma is the root of drug problems and must be addressed. She stressed that no one tries to get addicted.
After the panel discussion, the panelists engaged with attending community members in small groups to explore solutions.
This story was updated to correct the information of some of the panelists.