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Injection Drug Use and the African-American HIV Epidemic

By Allen Kwabena Frimpong

February 8, 2012

Allen Kwabena Frimpong

Allen Kwabena Frimpong

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of new HIV infections among the sub-populations most affected are lowest among black males and females who inject drugs. Two factors that contribute to these relatively low numbers are: One, our white counterparts use drugs more than we do, despite the fact we disproportionately carry the health, social and economic costs associated with the harms from drug use and punitive drug policies. Two, the advent of syringe exchange programs has also driven down the number of new infections among African Americans -- despite the fact that we know anecdotally, and through research, that there are barriers to African Americans accessing syringe exchange programs given law enforcement practices that racially profile and target them.

The key thing that I would like to highlight is the health, social and economic costs that African-American communities bear, despite the lower number of HIV infections via injection drug use, and our lower drug use overall. I would like to use my birthplace, the city of Newark, N.J. -- a city whose population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, is 52.4 percent African American -- as a case example of how HIV/AIDS can impact the Black community given what was aforementioned.

In 2007, 46 percent of Newark's HIV infections were attributed to injection drug use (primarily among people over the age of 25). In addition, youth going to juvenile detention for drug offenses had increased the same year -- over 46 percent of Newark youth attending juvenile detention centers were there for nonviolent drug offenses (imagine if we included adults). According to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports, 68 percent of those accessing drug treatment in Newark were going for heroin addiction.

Also, during this time, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report spanning a decade, Newark International Airport was a trafficking portal for one-third of the nation's heroin supply. Furthermore, the drug-free school zones policy of course doesn't cover the airport, but it covers the entire city of Newark, so if you are caught with drugs in the city of Newark, you are being triply criminalized for the type of drug, the amount, and also the location in which you are caught with drugs. This in turn funnels people into the prison system with exorbitant sentencing periods.

We know incarceration is a driver of HIV. We know lack of employment and education drives people to participate in "street economies," and we know that participation in these economies has harmful consequences in our communities and continues a cycle that does not encourage people to be empowered enough to protect themselves and their loved ones against HIV. This does not promote collective power in our families. It's for these reasons that a harm reduction approach, and a drug policy agenda that ends the criminalization of people who use drugs, will be vital in ensuring that African-American communities don't bear the brunt of the health, social and economic costs associated with harms like HIV infection.

Allen Kwabena Frimpong is a capacity building advisor at the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York City.

View the full feature, "What Really Fuels the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Black America?"

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