In the late 1980s, Richard Curtis, who was conducting a study of police crackdowns on open-air drug markets, saw first-hand the misery HIV infection inflicted on New Yorkers who used heroin.
“I was so overwhelmed by what I saw that I couldn’t walk away from it. I just couldn’t,” Curtis, who is now a professor of anthropology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, tells The Influence.
So in the late ’80s, he started a guerrilla harm reduction program in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, modeled after earlier programs in The Netherlands. It ran illegally for several years and was among the first ventures of its kind in the United States.
Curtis and his fellow volunteers had a vehicle with which they delivered clean syringes to heroin users to help them avoid HIV transmissions. This service was not appreciated by local cops, who regularly threatened the volunteers.
“We got chased by the police a lot,” Curtis recalls. “They used to pull me over and search the trunk. They’d say, ‘Look, we know what you are doing and if we ever catch you, we are gonna beat your ass.'”
They never did manage to catch Curtis—a good thing too, since his boss at the time warned him that he would be fired if he was caught—but friends of his were prosecuted.
Richard Curtis [Source]
In 1992, following a successful lawsuit against the city of New York by the activist group ACT UP, the New York City Health Commissioner began allowing deliveries of clean needles without prescription. Curtis expanded his operations greatly in the decades that followed.
In 1997, he was forced to take over CitiWide Harm Reduction, a facility in the Bronx, after a friend who ran that program overdosed and died. “I didn’t realize he did heroin,” Curtis says. He served as chairman for 15 years, during which the organization grew to 150 employees with a budget of $15 million. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Curtis and his partners continued operating facilities around the city, including the After Hours Project in Bushwick; he invested some of his own money alongside his partner Fernando Soto who provided the majority of the startup funds until they could secure further funding.
Curtis also sought to change attitudes by helping journalists gain access to the heroin-using community, including Los Angeles Times reporter Barry Bearak, who spent six weeks living in a shooting gallery. “Some of those people who he wrote about are still alive today. Some are definitely dead,” Curtis says.
Despite decades of media coverage, heroin addiction in minority neighborhoods did not prompt substantial changes to drug policy. Curtis notes that race and class discrimination contributed to neglect and harsh policing.
“In ghettoized areas there was always a problem, but who gives a shit about that?” he asks. “But now that it’s white kids, privileged white kids, then all of a sudden it’s time to stop getting ‘tough on crime’ but to get ‘smart on drugs.’”
Curtis, who recently opened another harm reduction program in a more privileged neighborhood in Long Island, notes that police there have a markedly more liberal attitude than the New York cops he dealt with earlier in his career.
“The police in Suffolk country allowed us to put a syringe disposal kiosk in the police station,” he says. “I thought, who the fuck is gonna go to the precinct to dispose of their syringes and stuff? But in 2015, one thousand pounds of syringes were disposed of, not only in that kiosk but around Suffolk country. Imagine how many syringes that is!”
The mainstreaming of naloxone, which is effective in reversing overdose, is another positive sign. The Long Island program has been supplying cops with naloxone to carry in their cruisers.
While Curtis is frustrated by the sickening double standard that resulted in decades of crackdowns in minority communities, he sees opportunity in the current climate. “You can fault the media. You can fault plenty of people for the past, but it won’t get us anywhere. I’d rather look forward than backward.”