Sitting in the Mess: Min. Blyth Barnow and the Work of Harm Reduction
While it took time to count every vote on election night, voters’ rejection of the war on drugs was clear. In every state where drug reform was on the ballot, voters chose it. Oregon became the first state to decriminalize small amounts of all drugs. Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana use. Mississippi and South Dakota legalized medical marijuana use, and the District of Columbia eased restriction on psychedelic drugs.
“All those wins on election night just told us that people are looking for a new way forward,” explained Minister Blyth Barnow, Harm Reduction Manager at Faith in Public Life. “People have seen that this war on drugs – which has always been rooted in anti-Blackness, racism, white supremacy, and anti-immigrant sentiment – [is] deadly and dangerous … for everybody and people are tired of it. They want to try something new.”
By decriminalizing drug use, voters are siding with reformers and creating an environment where lives can be saved. “Criminalization is the root cause of this overdose crisis, and when we decriminalize drugs, we allow people to access the safety, support and connection that they need to transform their lives and be well. And I think that’s why a lot of those policies won on election night.”
According to the National Coalition of Harm Reduction, overdose is the leading cause of death for people under 50 years old in the United States, the highest rate of drug-related mortality in the world. In Ohio, Faith in Public Life has been combating this by educating faith leaders on harm reduction, providing training on Naloxone (medication that reverses opioid overdoses) and fighting for policies that protect the dignity and wellness of those who use drugs.
“We work with grassroots harm reductionists, who are doing a lot of life-saving work all throughout our state, often without funding and often without the respect that they deserve,” Minister Barnow shared. “And we also are connected with faith leaders, people who want to step up and make a difference, people who know that harm reduction is a form of doing gospel work. We bridge those communities so that we build power together.”
Together these grassroot activists and faith leaders develop spiritual resources, offer practical opportunities to get people who use drugs support, and work towards policy wins that protect the lives and dignity of those who use drugs. This is the work of harm reduction.
Harm reduction is a collection of practices and philosophies aimed at supporting the health, wellness and connection of people who use drugs. “Harm reduction doesn’t require abstinence for people to receive support,” said Barnow. “It really meets people where they’re at. I think of it as a form of unconditional love.” Harm reduction also speaks to other principles of faith, including radical hospitality, radical welcome and generosity.
Barnow sees the work of harm reductionist in the same light as she sees the ministry of Mary Magdalene. “When Jesus was being crucified by state repression, she didn’t look away. She sat at the foot of the cross. She sat in the mess,” Barnow explained. “She was willing to stay and walk beside Jesus, and as she walked beside him, willing to care for his body even in death, she was the person that Jesus first appeared to in his resurrected form. She got to be first to witness resurrection because she didn’t avoid the mess; she didn’t avoid the difficulty.”
“Part of why things are changing is because people are understanding the racial justice implications for our drug laws,” said Barnow. “Our first anti-opium laws in this country were against Chinese migrants because white workers were afraid that those migrants were going to steal their railroad jobs. The first anti-cocaine laws in the country were against Black men. The first anti-marijuana laws in a country were against Mexican Americans and Mexican migrants. And the same talking points that were used to establish the War on Drugs in the 1880s, the 1930s, the 1960s, the 1980s, those talking points haven’t changed. Our current drug laws actually reinforce white supremacy in our legal system or criminal justice system.
“People know that that is absolutely against the will of God,” Barnow continued. “So when we’re reimagining drug policies when we’re removing criminalization part of what we’re saying is that this drug war is racist and the children of God deserve better.”
“As a Christian minister, this work is the work of the gospel,” shared Barnow. “We are called to love each other as God loves us, and God doesn’t wait for us to clean everything up before God will show God’s love. God is with us in the mess and that’s what harm reduction is, sitting in the mess with people and letting them know nothing they can do removes them from the love of others and the love of God.”
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