History Slam Episode 150: Dope is Death

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By Sean Graham

In the 1970s, Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs to combat, what he called, public enemy number one. In New York City, groups like the Black Panther Party and Young Lords recognized the damage addiction was doing to local communities, but also felt that federal efforts to combat drug use were doing more damage. From overuse of methadone to police surveillance to removing access to medical and social services, addiction and the ensuring War on Drugs was particularly harmful for marginalized communities in the city.

To combat this, the Black Panthers and Young Lords, with their membership of young activists, implemented a new form of detox that combined medical intervention and political action. Together they established the Lincoln Detox, a centre in the Bronx that used acupuncture to combat withdrawal symptoms caused by heroin. Along with its medical services, the program also ran classes on political activism. In its entirely, the Lincoln Detox sought to help its patients with addiction while simultaneously empowering them to combat systemic discrimination.

That program is the subject of the new documentary Dope is Death. Directed by Mia Donovan, the film follows the story of the Lincoln Detox as described by the people who lived it. As the centre grew, the program and its leaders faced increased scrutiny from government officials upset with the Detox’s use of a new treatment technique and its ideological teachings. A story that highlights racial discrimination, economic subjugation, and the value of social networks, Dope is Death is a powerful film of an influential movement that threatened the medical, political, and social establishment of New York City.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Mia Donovan about the film. We talk about her initial interest in the story, earning the trust of the participants, and the intersection of medicine and activism. We also talk about the racial dynamics in the story, the value of alternative medicine to combat addiction, and the story of Mutulu Shakur.

Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca

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