Communities of Drug Use
Long Hauling (7/9)

Communities of Drug Use

What does it mean to be ‘in community’? How do we do this in the day to day and in the contexts of multiple pandemics, settler colonialism, racism, sexism, the war on drugs, economic inequity, homophobia? What does it mean to create a collective that sustains and moves to act?

The following two essays, which reflect Bronx Móvil’s platform for action centred in radical love, were previously published in the zine Harm Reduction is Not a Metaphor.

bronx movil logo in green & yellow

“Harm Reduction on the streets? Love is love.” In front of a shelter in upper Manhattan as we distributed food and harm reduction supplies, a participant welcomed and thanked us with that sentiment one night in May 2020. It was a week before George Floyd’s murder, New York City was already in crisis in the middle of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fragility of the city’s social services sector was being fully revealed more and more everyday. This was not news to us, and neither were the solutions. 

As social bubbles and pods were being named as innovative in mainstream media such arrangements were already thriving in our communities pre-pandemic and grew exponentially as the months passed. Mutual aid networks exist in our communities; in fact, they are part of the fabric of BIPOC and poverty-impacted communities often marginalized and deemed hard to reach. And so we—Bronx Móvil, a collective of people impacted by the HIV crisis, who have lost loved ones to HIV and the opioid overdose crisis, who use drugs, who have experienced housing insecurity, who are Puerto Rican, Bronx residents, Queer, migrants—hit the streets with naloxone, harm reduction bags, safer smoking kits, syringes, food, water, socks, juice, PPE. The donations via churches, sewing collectives, community partners and organizers, and other harm reduction organizations flew in. The networks, la familia, grew. And we did our best to share what we were being given. 

Previously on March 20th, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered residents to stay home and all non-essential businesses to close; harm reduction nonprofit organizations at the forefront of services for people who are unsheltered and unhoused were grappling with an impacted workforce and many closed as well. Limited services meant that amid a historic pandemic, there was no water for bathing or drinking or laundry, no case management, no HIV or Hep C testing, and limited ongoing medication-assisted treatment. Also, medical appointments were cancelled and some community kitchens became grab and gos with meal bags. Our participants understood that the shelter system they were being “pushed into,”  which was already experienced as a violent one, was also now a petri dish of the novel coronavirus.

Resources, funding, and production lines transitioned to personal protective equipment and vaccine development. The impact was felt deeply. We assume syringe production was also diverted, because there were simply not enough syringes available for basic harm reduction: a new syringe for each and every shot.

drawn map of drug routes in The Bronx

If that was not enough, in early May the subways shut down overnight; this was a de facto eviction for many New Yorkers. Our participants—almost all Spanish speakers; Black, Indigenous and people of color; Puerto Rican; migrants; people who use drugs and/or are experiencing housing insecurity—already knew how to survive the streets. But this was a whole new level of vulnerability.

Now, as vaccines are mobilized, and capitalism gaslights people into returning to normal, we reiterate our vision that is radical love: In the city that never sleeps, harm reduction must be 24/7. The war on drugs must end. Housing is a human right. People who use drugs are loved. Solidarity is community.

Sources & Resources 
Overdose Deaths Continued Climb in 2020
Overdose deaths continued to worsen during the COVID-19 pandemic. In NYC, confirmed deaths during 2020 (including some deaths in the 4th quarter) were higher than all of 2019. Opioid overdose death is a reflection and the result of oppression; communities with higher rates of mortality are also where structural racism and socioeconomic inequity reign. Click here to read more. 

Unmasked: Impacts of Pandemic Policing 
A report that gathers and expands on the impacts of policing and criminalization in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to read more. 

Desenredando la Maraña

Desenredando la Maraña (Untangling the Weave) is a collective of harm reductionists who in early 2021 met and organized to address the opioid overdose crisis in our communities across New York City (NYC). Most of us are Bronx-based and working in the trenches of disrupting and dismantling the war on drugs. 

Data published in 2019 by Cano and Gelpí-Acosta demonstrates that the opioid overdose crisis has had a disproportionate impact on certain Latinx communities, in particular, stateside Puerto Ricans. The data shows that:

  • From 2009 to 2018, the age-adjusted drug overdose mortality rate in stateside Puerto Ricans doubled among women and nearly tripled among men. 
  • In 2018, the age-adjusted drug overdose mortality rate was significantly higher in Puerto Rican-heritage than non-Latinx white individuals.
  • The 2018 drug overdose mortality rate was highest among Puerto Rican-heritage men ages 45-54. 

The numbers are terrifying and we suspect that in 2020, the year marked by COVID-19,  the morbidity and mortality of the opioid overdose crisis will be worse for Puerto Ricans.

So what is the weave the collective aims to untangle? One thread is language and the non-specific terminology of categories used in biomedicine and public health. Although it strives for gender diversity, the heterogeneity of the term Latinx hides real data about specific communities. As harm reductionists on the streets, we need data that will then help shape specific language (vocabulary) and cultural centeredness (going beyond appropriate) health promotion programs. Another thread is harm reduction that empowers and transforms towards equity and social justice. We cannot just provide public health tools—we need to combat gentrification and NIMBY; the war on drugs must end; and we must acknowledge and support sovereignty for Indigenous and colonized peoples. 

And so, Desenredando la Maraña created Narcanazo, a play on Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, a medication that reverses an opioid overdose. And we are centering Puerto Ricans in The Bronx, where we live and one of the epicenters of the crisis. Our pillars are education and action. 

Get trained and train others. 
Let’s talk about drugs, specifically about opioids. 
Learn harm reduction tools, including the use of naloxone.
Together we heal and we work towards community empowerment where we end the war on drugs and center the human rights of people who use drugs. 

We created posters and a social media campaign in Spanish. We are canvassing our neighborhoods and talking with our neighbors, local business leaders and kinfolk members, from lovers, padres, madrinas and primas to churches, botánicas and bodegas. Our goal is community charlas and community naloxone kits readily available for use. 

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


Tamara Oyola-Santiago is a public health educator and harm reductionist navigating the multiplicities of home, justice and healing. She is co-founder of Bronx Móvil where radical love and hope humanize.

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