We’ve Overcome Stigma and Prejudice, Now Let’s Overcome Drugs and Alcohol

Pride Month sprang from the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. What began as an impassioned march to Central Park to commemorate the riots is now a month-long celebration at huge festivals in cities around the world, promoting dignity, equality, and self-affirmation for the LGBTQ+ community. However, as we wrap the 51st annual Pride Month, it’s important to reflect on another aspect of our community that doesn’t elevate us. In fact, it drags us down: disproportionately heavy alcohol and drug use.

Individuals in the LGBTQ+ community are 90% more likely to use alcohol and drugs than their heterosexual counterparts. More than a third (38%) of LGBTQ+ aged 18 and older reported past year marijuana use, compared to 16% reported by the overall adult population. Opioid use (including misuse of prescription opioids or heroin use) was also higher, with 9% of LGBTQ+ aged 18 or older reporting use compared to 4% among the overall adult population. In 2015, past-year meth use prevalence was more than four times higher among gay men compared to straight men. In West Hollywood, an LGBTQ-centric city, recent surveys indicate open meth use at events (74%) and at bars and clubs (68%) was an issue harming the community.

Why the heavy use of drugs and alcohol? It’s not so difficult to understand. For one, bars and clubs have been a central gathering place for us for decades, providing refuge, connection, and escape from prejudice. Alcohol has long been a backdrop in the areas where we have felt safe.

It is also largely a question of stress, self-esteem and mental health. Compared to their straight counterparts, LGBTQ+ individuals report a disproportionately higher prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – traumatic or stressful life events. A 2020 study published by the Center for American Progress revealed a dramatic picture of measures taken by LGBTQ+ Americans to avoid discrimination: more than half of respondents (54%) had hidden a relationship. Over one in three had moved away from family (32%), changed the way they dressed/mannerisms (35%) and avoided public places (33%). Alcohol and drugs, in addition to being socially normative for our community, have long been used as a poor coping mechanism and escape from internalized homophobia, rejection and shame.

So what can we do about it? It requires a comprehensive approach that includes important policy and social norms changes. On a policy level, the adoption of reasonable practices that optimize LGBTQ-centric entertainment districts — including addressing excessive bar and club density, operational mismanagement and community impact — is crucial. Pride events are another area where important policy shifts are required.

The “Tobacco Policies and Alcohol Sponsorship at Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Festivals: Time for Intervention” study observed that, while sexual health promotion is common at pride events, few events have policies promoting health in other areas. The study finds that while reducing and/or eliminating alcohol sponsorship of Pride events is challenging in the near term, “…we believe it is critical to renew a conversation about critically appraising the marketing efforts of industries that sell products that disproportionately target and harm LGBT+ communities and communities of color.”

There is also tremendous progress to be made shifting away from alcohol and drugs as a normative part of our culture. Alcohol-free gathering spaces and events can be cultivated by public health practitioners, LGBTQ-centric organizations, Pride organizers and public officials. The City of West Hollywood, for example, has sponsored a large alcohol-free space at LA Pride that attracts thousands of attendees for the past seven years.

Powerful messaging and initiatives from influencers and organizations that highlight health, wellness and self-esteem will make a dramatic impact over time in changing our community’s attitudes about drugs and alcohol. It’s especially important for those who are newly coming out.

Pride is a time to celebrate all that is great about our community – all that we’ve contributed and how far we’ve come. Now’s the time to look squarely at the problematic drinking and drug use that has long plagued us and that, tragically, is born from a long history of discrimination and prejudice. Everything is already shifting for our community and this can too. A 2010 poll of 1,500 people who are already out, found that among the over-60s, the average age they had come out was 37. In the group aged 18 to 24, it was 17. What a tremendous indicator or our progress toward self-acceptance and with it, health, wellness and self-love.

Happy Pride.

David R. Shorey
Program Manager, IPS

David R. Shorey is a Program Manager at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

Why we as Asian Americans need to step up and speak out about important issues more often

As seen in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

My heart was racing, and my chest felt tight. Blood was rushing to my face, and I was feeling the urge to flee. That could be the typical reaction people feel when they are faced with a physical threat. Instead, I was having these sensations because I was in a heated conversation over a text thread with an Asian American friend of mine. He was accusing me of lacking vocal support for various AAPI causes and of actually being against Asian Americans.

I had to pause, take a deep breath and calm down. I knew that I was a passionate advocate for Asian Americans. I was not going to allow an electronic conversation devoid of context strip me of my values and merit. I had served as the president of a Vietnamese American youth organization. I had volunteered at Asian American cultural festivals. And I advocate for Asian American causes like voting access and Vietnamese language courses at San Diego State University.

I wondered why I was having this reaction. Why was it so hard for me to stand up for myself that I had an actual physical aversion to it? I’ve always been one to participate, to volunteer and to support my convictions. But when it comes to being vocal and speaking out, there was, and still is, a fear that I am not the right person to be speaking. I’m worried that I’ll rock the boat and disturb those around me. I’m concerned that I will stand out and attract unwanted attention. Uncertainty has led to my hesitancy and eventually to a silencing of my voice. It’s a trait that I think is fairly common in the Asian American community in the U.S.

My experience in our Asian cultures leads me to believe that we have an established decorum regarding behavior and social hierarchies that dictate whom we listen to and trust. We revere politicians, doctors, engineers, scientists and business people because we believe in their knowledge and their success. People who challenge that decorum or speak as an authority without the expected credentials often experience derision, judgment and unwanted attention to themselves and their families. This fear of reprisal is often enough to keep us silent.

Recently, however, I have felt the needed to be more vocal. Not only myself, but Asian Americans in general need to step up and speak out about issues important to our ethnic group as a whole. We rarely tell anyone about the issues important to us, like how Asian Americans are underrepresented in corporate management and at the executive level, even in companies comprised of a majority of Asians. Or talk about how Asian American hate crimes are spiking nationally. These hate crimes are not isolated in specific cities — they are underreported because of cultural tendencies to keep our “heads down” and out of the spotlight, leading to fewer police reports.

Major Asian American history is being washed over because we aren’t discussing it enough. Before the modern, COVID-19-related anti-Asian attacks, there was Vincent Chin. He was a Chinese American immigrant murdered because he was perceived to be a foreign threat to American auto workers. The Ku Klux Klan attacked Vietnamese Americans and their shrimping boats in the South because they were a perceived threat to local fishermen. After the attacks on 9/11, Sikhs were targeted because of their dark skin, turbans and beards. Asian American hate crimes aren’t new. They’ve just been lost and forgotten because we aren’t talking about them.

Asian American voices shouldn’t be heard only when we are feeling like our lives are being threatened. We should be vocal long before and long after the news cameras turn away from us to focus on the next big headline. For us to build coalitions and gain understanding in American society, we have to join the conversation. Standing on the sidelines and waiting for things to get dire is unacceptable. The time is now.

These days, I still think really hard about the things I want to say. The gears churn as I consider who might be offended or if what I’m thinking is relevant to the conversation. I just have to keep reminding myself when I’m ready to say something, that what I have to say is, in fact, worth saying.

Michael Thai
Digital Media Specialist, IPS

Michael Thai is a Digital Media Specialist for the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

Immigration Makes America Exceptional: America’s new wave of immigrants holds the promise for a new age of prosperity

As we all learned in high school, it was immigrants that built this country. Drawn by the chance for a better life, more than 20 million arrived around the turn of the twentieth century. Mostly poor, uneducated and unskilled, they provided cheap labor for America’s burgeoning industries. They faced harsh working and living conditions, along with resentment from those who opposed the nation’s open immigration policy. But they survived and prospered, all the while helping to build what was to become the greatest economy in the world.

This great experiment in democracy brought in new people with new ideas and fostered competition that brought out the best of both, creating what became known as American Exceptionalism. And it worked, not just then but even today, with almost half of America’s Fortune 500 companies being started by immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Today we are experiencing a new wave of immigrants, mostly people of color coming across our southern border with Mexico. Fleeing from oppression in their home countries, they come seeking a better life. They hold the same potential benefits as those who came here before – the promise for a new age of prosperity. American Exceptionalism 2.0.

Unfortunately, there are many who fiercely oppose this new wave of immigration. Consumed by prejudice and intolerance, just as their predecessors were more than a century ago, they fail to see the potential benefits. Instead, they fear the worst. Increased crime and violence from a generation of freeloaders who present nothing but a burden to America’s economy.

Such ideas, fostered by misinformation spread through social media and political rhetoric, have been with us for a long time. However, the facts paint a completely different picture. When we look at the research, we find that most new arrivals are law abiding, hardworking, and loyal, perhaps even more so than the rest of us.

Contrary to the stereotypical depiction, immigrants are not chronically in need of health care and other social support. Instead, they are healthier than expected when entering the country, willing to work and contribute to society. This is especially true for refugees like those currently seeking asylum in America. The federal government does pay the initial cost of their resettlement. But over their first 20 years of residency, they pay it all back and more in taxes.

What about the rapists and murderers we’ve heard about? The worst of the worst, coming across the southern border to wreak havoc and disorder? Again, these stories are intended only to frighten and build political opposition. The truth is that crime rates among immigrant populations are actually lower than those of native-born Americans. According to landmark study by the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, even those who have entered the country illegally have lower rates of conviction – 45% lower, in fact. Moreover, the data show that rates of violent crime go down as immigration increases.

These data are not only clear but conclusive. Rather than being a burden, immigrants are a good investment in America’s future. Even so, many people – some 42% according to a recent Gallop poll – remain convinced that immigration leads to crime. Why do so many cling to these false beliefs? The author of the study may have the answer. “The tendency to believe false information about immigrants could be that people who don’t like immigration could just ascribe all types of negative behavior to them in order to justify their dislike.”

It’s time to leave such false narratives behind. History has proved them wrong. Today we know the truth. It was diversity that made America great, diversity of people and ideas, brought together in a free and open society where everyone has the chance for a better life.

America has come a long way since its beginnings, and It has been an uphill battle. But through war, civil strife, and political upheaval, the country has been steadily moving beyond its racist past. It is time to celebrate people of color and welcome a new era of freedom and prosperity. Let’s not let petty biases and prejudice stand in the way.

Dan Skiles
Consultant, IPS

Dan Skiles is a consultant and former Executive Director at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health, and improve quality of life.

I Am a Change-Maker in My Community and Here’s My Story

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to tell you why and how you should incorporate storytelling into advocating for change in your community through media advocacy.

But first, a quick definition of media advocacy. It’s the strategic use of media to advance policy issues that benefit public health and safety. It raises issues into the local or national conversation and influences policy making.

Stories can be an important component of an organization’s media advocacy strategy. After all, humans are hard wired to respond positively to storytelling. Chemical elements in our brain are released when we hear a story. Cortisol aids in making the memory stick when we are trying to make a point. Dopamine, which helps regulate our emotional responses, keeps us engaged. Oxytocin is associated with empathy, which is an important component to building, deepening, or maintaining good relationships. Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson writes, “A story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.”

Pixar Studios is, no doubt, a leader in storytelling, producing award-winning movies such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and A Bug’s Life. The key, according to Pixar producer Andrew Stanton, is to make me care. This is the greatest story commandment that determines the impact a story will have on its audience. Tapping into the audience’s emotions may help them understand more about the challenges your community faces. It invites people to walk in someone else’s shoes for just a moment. Our main character is perhaps someone we all know and gives us a reason to care. Or perhaps the mouthpiece for describing struggles that we may all personally share.

Sure, visual detail, well-developed characters and a juicy plot are important to whether or not a story hits the mark. But if a story engages the emotions, and better yet, provokes a reader or listener into action, then… score!

If you still need convincing that storytelling will give your media advocacy a strategic boost, consider the following: there are more than 1,200 daily newspapers and more than 1,700 commercial television stations in the U.S. There are 11 social media platforms with more than 200 million users. There are more than 1,750,000 podcasts and more than 600 million blogs worldwide.

There is no shortage of places where people can go to get their news. So this is another reason to incorporate storytelling into your media advocacy – to stand out in a saturated crowd.

The mechanics of a story are simple: it involves a character who runs into an obstacle that is eventually resolved by the end of his/her journey. Along the way, the character encounters road blocks, hurdles, and villains. But by the end of the story, the character has undergone a transformation – preferably a positive one.

Before you start crafting your story, think about the goal you are trying to achieve. What change are you advocating? Who do you need to hear your story? Why should anyone listen to you?

As you start writing, begin with a hook – the sentence that engages the audience to keep reading or listening. As you craft this vital sentence, put yourself in your audience’s shoes: why should they keep reading or listening? Did you start your article with an interesting anecdote, quote, or surprising fact? Did you ask the audience a profound question? One way to engage your reader is to stir up their emotions, whether it is happiness, enthusiasm, grief, anger or frustration. Stories help transmit emotions, which are very powerful in getting people to act or behave in a certain way, preferably in a positive way.

From there, don’t forget the basics of writing for the media: who, what, when, where, and why.

Another important detail about storytelling is to show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me, for example, how upset residents are about living near a polluting factory. Show me through their thoughts, emotions, and actions of caring for a family member who struggles everyday with asthma. Don’t be afraid to get descriptive using sensory details. Vivid description is what puts the color into an otherwise black and white landscape.

After you have led your audience through the unfolding narrative of the main character, bring them back to the key takeaway. With what message do you want your audience to leave? What is the call to action?

Incorporating stories into your media advocacy strategy is a great way to bring attention to your cause. Reporters are always looking for the human interest side of a story. And they don’t have too far to go to find it. The people and communities you are advocating for can become the heroes of a well-crafted story.

Meredith Gibson
Media Director, IPS

Meredith Gibson is the Media Director for the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative, Countywide Media Advocacy Project, and Partnerships for Success. She generates news articles to promote awareness of public health issues, collaborates on opinion editorials (op-eds) with community leaders, and pitches ideas and spokespersons to news outlets, amassing media coverage at the local and national levels.

Wear a Mask for 100 Days: How President Biden’s call to action can restore America’s faith in public health

Wearing a face mask during a pandemic seems like a no-brainer. Public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have repeatedly endorsed the practice, along with handwashing and social distancing, as critical to curbing the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, with a new variant of the coronavirus entering the U.S., now is the time to take definitive action. And President Biden’s call for all Americans to wear a face mask for 100 days is just what the doctor ordered.

Yet there has been strong resistance over mandates to wear face masks with members of anti-mask groups claiming their person freedoms are being violated. According to one of their leaders, Ammon Bundy, who once organized armed standoffs against federal agents, “It’s not about, you know, the mandates or the mask. It’s about them not having that right to do it.”

This is really nothing new. The struggle between personal freedom and public health has been brewing for decades. Complaints about so-called Nanny-State laws, governmental protections that supposedly interfere with individual rights, actually began in the 2000s. Over the years they included mandates to wear motorcycle helmets, restrictions of smoking in restaurants and bans on sugary sodas, all of which have all been characterized as governmental overreach.

However, with the advent of the pandemic, the opposition had reached a higher level of intensity, generating a storm of controversy. Mask-wearing rules in retail environments have sparked many a meltdown, with videos going viral over the internet of individuals going ballistic, kicking and screaming, some having to be physically removed from the store.

Large public demonstrations have also become common, with anti-mask protestors getting into people’s faces, using the fact that they are not wearing a mask as an act of aggression. After one such protest in Los Angeles, the city council passed a mask-wearing law, with up to a $1,000 fine or six months in jail for those who don’t comply.

But the idea of compulsory mask-wearing, like state-mandated lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, has only served to further inflame the anti-mask groups. At one recent demonstration in Idaho, armed protestors swarmed health district offices — and some health officials’ homes — screaming and blaring air horns. In the face of such hostility and personal threats, many public health professionals have been forced to leave their jobs. Since April 1, some 181 have resigned, retired or been fired in 38 states. It’s the largest exodus of public health leaders in American history.

All this has significantly weakened America’s system of public health and severely handicapped efforts to combat the pandemic. Overwhelmed with COVID-19, many hospitals have cancelled elective procedures and some are now unable to accept any new patients. Eventually no services may be available at all, even for emergencies. In such dire circumstances, the cost of health care would be sure to skyrocket. That is, for anyone who can gain access.

Public health initiatives, along with their rules and regulations, are designed to prevent such worse-case scenarios from taking place. And they have been largely successful throughout the twentieth century, including vaccinations for polio, smallpox, and measles. Stricter driving under the influence and seat belt laws have reduced traffic fatalities. Public smoking restrictions are protecting vulnerable populations from being exposed to secondhand smoke.

While measures like these sometimes do infringe on personal freedoms, they are adopted because they serve the greater public good, which is something that government is legally obligated to do. In times of national emergency, such as with the COVID-19 pandemic, this could include temporarily closing businesses and quarantining individuals. Otherwise, we would have little chance of curbing the rates of infection and death, which have already reached unprecedented levels.

For this reason alone, mask-wearing laws could be legally passed and enforced. However, that is not how we like to do things in a democracy, nor is it what we need to do right now. What we need now is voluntary compliance. What we need now is the restoration of America’s faith in public health. President Biden’s call for masking up could be a step in that direction, but it must not be considered as a threat to personal freedom. Instead, it should be regarded as a patriotic duty, a contribution each person must make to avert a national disaster, something each American should be more than willing to do to support our democratic system of government.

Let’s remember that Joe Biden is not the first president to make such a call. President Kennedy, in his inaugural address 60 years ago, encouraged us to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Right now, wearing a mask for the next 100 days is something all of us can do for our country.

Dan Skiles
Consultant, IPS

Dan Skiles is a consultant and former Executive Director at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health, and improve quality of life.

Black Vaccine Hesitancy Stems from a Long History of Medical Racism

Dr. Susan Moore, a Black medical doctor, recently died of COVID-19. She documented her experience leading up to her death, including being denied pain medication and proper treatment. Despite being a doctor, speaking in medical terms, and understanding the protocols, Dr. Moore was sent home and died just a couple of weeks later. In her videos, Moore blamed her poor treatment on medical racism. And, while some contest this kind of claim, medical racism in the U.S. has been ongoing since, well, since Black people came to this country in chains. The abuse, neglect, and unethical experimentation is well documented today.

At no time in history has the health of Black Americans equaled that of White Americans. From the days of slavery until now, the White medical community’s policies, practices and prejudices have had an enormous impact on the health of Blacks. When Africans began populating this country, mainly as slaves and second class citizens, many White doctors were taught and subscribed to the notion that Blacks required different treatments because they could tolerate more pain and had unpredictable reactions to medications. Therefore, White physicians were rarely careful or sensitive when treating Blacks.

James Marion Sims, widely recognized as the father of modern gynecology, came to prominence by performing shocking experiments on enslaved women while also forcing them to perform domestic duties and serve as nurses in his clinic. One of his patients was an 18-year-old named Lucy, who suffered incontinence after giving birth. During her procedure a few months later, Lucy was on her hands and knees, screaming in pain for an hour while a dozen doctors watched. Dr. Sims performed the same surgeries on White women, but with anesthesia.

The notion that Black people do not experience pain similar to White people still exists. A 2016 study by the University of Virginia revealed a significant number of White medical students and residents held false beliefs about the biological differences between Blacks and Whites, including that Blacks have thicker skin and do not feel pain as acutely. These notions show up in practice, even among children. A study of nearly one million children with appendicitis revealed that Black children were less likely than White children to receive pain medication for moderate and severe pain.

Another particularly egregious example of medical racism occurred in an operating room at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond in 1968. A 54-year-old African American factory worker, Bruce Tucker, fell at work and hit his head. He was taken to the hospital unconscious. When the doctors rushed him to the operating room, they did not attempt to revive him. Instead, they harvested his heart and kidney for a white patient who needed them. No effort was ever made to contact Tucker’s relatives. It is still unclear today as to whether Tucker was actually brain dead, as the surgeons declared.

There are many accounts in history books, medical literature, and other periodicals about unethical and immoral medical procedures on Blacks due to racist attitudes and practices. The Tuskegee experiment is a well-known example. From 1932 to 1972, Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, who had syphilis were recruited for a medical study to determine the course of the disease. The men were informed they had “bad blood” (at the time, the term encompassed several medical problems, including syphilis) and that they would receive free health care from the government. None were ever given antibiotics, despite the treatment being available. This horrific practice only came to light in a newspaper story.

So, here we are in 2021 amid a raging pandemic, where Blacks are dying disproportionately. A vaccine is available and a lot of media attention has been focused on the “vaccine hesitancy” of Blacks. It’s no wonder, considering our history. A cynical view would be that the attention paid to Black vaccine hesitancy is not because of an outpouring of sympathy for our COVID-19 death rate but because the U.S. won’t reach herd immunity without the participation of at least some Blacks getting the vaccination. America needs us but has a hard time admitting it.

Blacks have a lot to offer America. Indeed, look at the votes from the presidential election and the January runoff in Georgia. Black voter turnout is credited with changing the political tide of this country.

If a Black physician can’t get proper care in a hospital, what chance does any Black person have? Non-Blacks must recognize this disparity and speak up and speak out when seeing these racist practices. Non-Blacks should also take some time to study African American history, at least during this month, to discover how much Blacks have done and continue to do for this country. We believe, like any other American, that this is our home. We want to live a productive life and contribute to societal progress. But how long will it take for America to see that Blacks love this country even though this country seems not to love us?

Cynthia Nickerson
Media Advocacy Specialist

Cynthia Nickerson is a media advocacy specialist at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health, and improve quality of life.

Looking to 2021 Through a New Lens

No one could have imagined 2020 would be such a challenging year for our nation. It has been a perfect storm. A once-in-a-century pandemic has exacted fatal tolls and collided with social unrest on a scale unseen in decades. Fault lines drawn long ago have burst at the seams, laying bare the inequality, injustice and rage underneath. However, as difficult as 2020 has been, it has brought opportunities to light that we must seize to repair the rifts in our divided society.

First, 2020 has elevated an understanding that systemic racism is pervasive. This realization came on like a freight train at a time when many Whites thought our country had moved beyond it. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery lit the tinder that brought thousands into the streets. As Americans marched for justice, many other harsh truths were dragged into the light, including police brutality, incarceration rates, childbirth mortality and COVID-19 deaths suffered disproportionately by Black and Latinx communities. While it has been painful to witness, race has dominated the national conversation and motivated tens of thousands to act, by way of protest and demonstration, demanding change. In turn, institutions have been forced to reflect on their role and what they can do to help repair centuries old injustices.

Second, 2020 has catalyzed the beginnings of meaningful police reform, a reimagining that has long been necessary. This year’s tragic events have inspired a renewed political will and a sweeping set of reform proposals. Better oversight and training, new crisis intervention protocols, federal data collection standards – even fundamental questions like what should be the mission of police officers – are all on the table. People with ideas from both ends of the political spectrum must find common ground. They are moving into 2021, trying to meet in an understanding that demanding an end to police brutality and valuing the role of law enforcement are not mutually exclusive.

Lastly, the intersection of a pandemic and massive social unrest has exposed the drastic societal inequities that exist in health, wealth and opportunity. Community trauma has emerged as a core public health concept. The understanding that substance use, mental health, illness, crime and poverty stem from adverse childhood experiences and baked-in inequities is now a guiding principle for public health funders and practitioners alike. This enlightened perspective brings forth the potential of directing money and resources to root causes. It facilitates new partnerships between social justice and public health advocates. These are big wins for the future of public health, with broad implications for successfully addressing our nation’s most intractable public health problems.

We are entering 2021 with a new lens. The new year brings with it the opportunity to harness the energy born out of this year’s struggle, with a renewed understanding of the link between public health, social justice, and economic opportunity. There is widespread agreement that this energy needs to translate into sweeping policy change. Like never before, we must attempt to lift up disaffected communities and implement crucial reforms that have for decades been neglected. The political will exists. Now let’s see what we can accomplish with it.

Brenda Simmons
CEO/President, IPS

Brenda Simmons is CEO/President of the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

Up in Smoke: Marijuana is Erasing Decades of Progress Toward Smoke-Free Environments

Download ‘Up in Smoke’ Infographic.

A recent Los Angeles countywide survey of 13,500 residents revealed pervasive public exposure to marijuana* smoke in parks, schools, apartment buildings, business complexes and outdoor spaces. Completed in 2019 by the LA County Prevention Provider Network, the survey found, for adults ages 26 and up:

  • 77% reported smelling marijuana in adjacent apartments (21% all the time)
  • 76% reported smelling marijuana in parks (22% all the time)
  • 75% reported smelling marijuana in business complexes (16% all the time)
  • 70% reported smelling marijuana in schools.

Youth were no exception. Seventeen percent of youth respondents reported exposure to marijuana in public all the time and 14% reported frequently.

The findings indicate a dramatic reversal to the years of progress that reduced California residents’ exposure to secondhand smoke. Before the legalization of recreational marijuana, California was considered America’s non-smoking section. In 1995, it was the first state to ban smoking tobacco in nearly every workplace and indoor public spaces. In the following years, the ban extended to restaurants, bars, taverns, and gaming clubs.

More recently, in 2016, California enacted multiple tobacco control laws that closed loopholes in the state’s smoke-free laws, including defining e-cigarettes as a tobacco product and prohibiting vaping wherever smoking is not allowed. For decades, the state’s strong tobacco laws were widely considered to have protected people – and youth in particular – from secondhand smoke.

Today, the tide seems to be turning. Public health experts cite two primary concerns about pervasive public exposure to marijuana smoke. For one, research shows that secondhand marijuana smoke contains many of the same cancer-causing substances and toxic chemicals as tobacco smoke and can create harmful cardiovascular health effects, including atherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke.

“Smoke is smoke. Both tobacco and marijuana smoke impair blood vessel function similarly,” said Matthew Springer, cardiovascular researcher and associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Additionally, the normalization of marijuana smoke could influence youth use. Research shows the more marijuana use is seen as normal, the more likely youth are to try it. A 2014 survey by ABC News Radio found that three times the number of youths whose parents smoked marijuana reported smoking it themselves (72%). Only 20% of youth respondents reported smoking marijuana whose parents didn’t smoke. A 2017 study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that teens mentioned the widespread use of marijuana by people they know and its legalization as evidence that marijuana is not harmful. According to the study, “the findings suggest that normalization of marijuana use is taking place.”

Beyond the public health implications, the LA County survey found marijuana smoke is bothersome. Seventy-three percent of respondents indicated some measure of annoyance, reporting marijuana smoke bothered them extremely (31%), very much (17%), moderately (14%), or slightly (11%).

These issues become more pressing as increasing numbers of states change their marijuana laws. In last month’s election, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota legalized marijuana for recreational use, joining the 11 states that had already done so. Policymakers in those states could look to California as a bellwether for what’s ahead.

So what can be done about it?

First, if a state legalizes marijuana, state and local jurisdictions should move quickly to define smoking to include the smoking of marijuana as well as the use of electronic smoking devices. New laws must be clear and comprehensive to avoid loopholes. In March 2019, for example, LA County expanded its smoke-free laws by clearly articulating its existing ban on tobacco products at beaches, parks, and government buildings, including electronic cigarettes and marijuana.

Second, the public must be educated on new smoking laws and on the true impact of marijuana smoke. While misinformation about secondhand marijuana smoke abounds, the data in an ever-emerging research landscape makes clear that secondhand marijuana smoke has negative health impacts. Smoke-free laws that include marijuana will better protect workers and the public from all forms of secondhand smoke and vapor.

Third, public health professionals must always be at the ready to push back on the motivated, profit-oriented marijuana industry. According to the Non-Smoker’s Rights Foundation, marijuana industry representatives could use tactics from the tobacco playbook, including loosening terms like “public” in ways more favorable to their purposes of normalizing marijuana use everywhere.

The truth is, a safe public environment is 100% smoke-free. It is possible to return to the clean air gains that were made with a renewed commitment in 2021 – by engaging health partners, the public and legislators at the state, county, and local levels. Let’s get to work.

* IPS’s corporate standard is to use the term ‘cannabis.’ For the purposes of this Hot Topic, IPS is reflecting the language used in the L.A. County Marijuana Public Smoking Initiative.

Sarah Blanch
Vice President of Organizational Development, IPS

Sarah is responsible for developing and implementing tactical plans that support the vision, mission, goals and growth of the agency. Sarah leads IPS projects in Los Angeles County, where she oversees the implementation of policy-focused initiatives intended to improve public health and safety throughout the City and County of Los Angeles.

Substance Abuse Is A Public Health Issue, Yet Sketchy Policies Have Ruined Many POC Lives

As seen on Blavity.

The blame lies not just with policy makers, but with us all for buying into the false narrative that substance misuse is a moral failing of ethnic minorities.

The United States passed its first substance abuse policy 100 years ago, the Harrison Act. It regulated opiates and cocaine. Prior to that time, drugs had been considered a public health problem to be dealt with by the medical profession. But by the turn of the century, the mood of the country had changed. Spurred on by a storm of controversy in the media, often reaching the level of public outrage, many more laws were passed in the following years. These included landmark legislation such as the prohibition of alcohol in 1920 and President Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs” in the 1970s.

To be sure, the concern over alcohol and drugs has always been real. Then as now, these problems have had a devastating impact on individuals as well as communities. And we are still struggling to deal with the fallout today. But America’s substance abuse policies were never really designed to address the issue. From its inception, the driving force behind these laws, more than anything else, has been a phobic reaction to uncontrolled immigration and the proliferation of minorities. The overall impact of those laws has not been a reduction in substance abuse, but the subjugation of minorities and people of color.

The Harrison Act is a prime example. There was much rhetoric at the time about the dangers of smoking opium, how it would lead to prostitution and other crimes. But the real concern was over who was using the drug — the growing population of Chinese immigrants who had originally come to America after the Gold Rush of 1849. Combined with fears of unemployment among white Americans, this also led to a series of Exclusion Acts that placed a moratorium on Chinese immigration.

As with opium, alcohol had been a problem long before any laws against it were passed. By 1830, the average American over 15 years old consumed almost seven gallons of alcohol a year — three times as much as we drink today. Also, in a time when women had few rights, there were problems with drunken husbands abusing their wives. So, America’s “Temperance Movement,” which was formed about this time, sought to ban alcohol consumption entirely.

But the movement gained little traction until the turn of the century when a group called the Anti-Saloon League, supported by the Ku Klux Klan, launched an aggressive media campaign based on anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant fervor. Focusing on wholesomeness and family values, they published fake news stories about white women raped by Black men who were unable to control themselves under the influence of alcohol.

Much the same strategy was used in the campaign against cannabis, only this time it was directed at immigrants from Mexico who came here to escape the Mexican Civil War. Stories in the media warned about the “killer Weed” inciting violent crimes, arousing a “lust for blood,” and giving its users “superhuman strength.” They changed its name to “Marihuana” to link it to the Mexican immigrants and claimed that they were distributing it to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.

In the 1980s, the focus turned to crack cocaine, which had been plaguing low-income, Black and Latinx inner city neighborhoods. Ignoring the economic policies that led to disparities in such neighborhoods, President Ronald Reagan’s administration blamed all their ills on drug use and allocated $1.7 billion for enforcement programs. Policies passed in subsequent years included harsher penalties for using drugs, with Black and brown people targeted for arrest and prosecution. As a result, 90% of state prisoners sentenced for drug crimes have been Black or Latinx, even though they used and sold drugs at the same rates as whites.

In more recent years, as the science of substance abuse prevention has advanced, policies have become more progressive. For example, while conducting enforcement operations, San Diego County’s Methamphetamine Strike Force has diverted drug users into treatment rather than sending them to jail. Even the federal government has taken a more enlightened approach in dealing with the opioid epidemic, indicting pharmaceutical companies for promoting the drug and allocating funds for research, prevention and treatment.

But the fact remains that throughout the 20th century, substance abuse policy has been used as a tool to turn public opinion against people of color and preserve the dominance of white America. The blame lies not just with policy makers, but with us all for buying into the false narrative that substance misuse is a moral failing of ethnic minorities who deserve to be treated as criminals and isolated from the rest of society.

Brenda Simmons
CEO/President, IPS

Brenda Simmons began her career at IPS in 2003 as a community organizer in San Diego County. She was promoted multiple times before she was elevated to CEO/President in April 2019. She has a broad range of experience working in very conservative rural and frontier communities in Montana, ultra-progressive communities including Los Angeles and West Hollywood, and everything in between. Brenda has been involved in projects ranging in focus from substance abuse prevention to community revitalization to child-sex trafficking. As CEO, Brenda oversees more than a dozen IPS projects in Southern California.

Covid-19 Effects Election

Voters are Being Disenfranchised During COVID. What Can We Do About It?

First, it was images of mailboxes being carted away in pick-up trucks, then states limiting ballot drop boxes to one per county. Now real-time court rulings are changing voting processes and procedures even though voting has already started. All of this is causing alarm, confusion, and hardship. To many, it represents a new tactic from an old playbook – a decades-long practice of suppressing the vote.

Before the 1960s, states often used Jim Crow laws, including literacy tests and poll taxes, to block Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, and naturalized citizens from voting. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought these practices to an end, deeming them illegal, Barack Obama’s election in 2008 after record voter turnout stirred the pot. By the end of his first term, no less than 27 voter suppression measures were passed or implemented in 19 states.

These measures were the precursor to the 2013 U. S. Supreme Court decision to strike down Section 5 in the Voting Rights Act, opening the door for critical discriminatory practices, including racial gerrymandering. States like Florida took advantage of a weak Voting Rights Act. The legislature passed a law requiring Floridians with a criminal record to pay all fines, fees, and restitution owed in connection with their sentence before being eligible to vote, essentially threatening hundreds of thousands of ex-felons with criminal prosecution if they voted.

These and countless other examples illustrate a pattern of coordinated and intentional efforts to make voting harder – sometimes impossible – for specific segments of the electorate, dating back centuries.

Here in October 2020, we find ourselves at the intersection of two momentous events: a global pandemic and a fraught presidential election. Sadly, the same populations historically targeted by suppression efforts are also disproportionately dying from coronavirus exposure: Blacks, Latinos, and low-income Americans. When voting in person could threaten their very lives, a deadly public health crisis is being leveraged to disenfranchise these same populations. Bringing them into the process means offering ways for all eligible Americans to cast their vote without being forced to travel far or stand in long polling lines.

Logical remedies allow for the full utilization of remote voting options. Despite claims that mail-in ballots lead to fraudulent voting by ineligible individuals, the truth is that this type of fraud is almost nonexistent. An extensive review by Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School found 31 cases of impersonation fraud out of more than 1 billion ballots cast from 2000 to 2014. Still, while wide-spread mail-in ballots are a step in the right direction, voting by mail is threatened by a weakened U.S. Postal Service.

So, now that voting is well underway in most states, what can be done? States must be vigilant and proactive in widely publicizing voting options in simple terms, with clear instructions on voting requirements. Such publicity is even more critical if court rulings result in last-minute changes to voting procedures. Rural and traditionally disenfranchised communities must have easy access to ballot drop boxes. States should provide a system for voters to monitor the receipt and acceptance of their ballot. Communities can support local voting rights groups that are actively engaging in the courts to attempt to stop voter suppression efforts, as was just done in Texas.

And Congress must continue to do whatever it can to support the USPS in the timely and successful delivery of an unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots.

Voting is the cornerstone of our democratic process, and right now, it is no exaggeration to say that the ability of all eligible voters to participate in the November election is under grave threat. During this pandemic, at this moment, we must rise to the challenge. We must learn from history’s lessons. We must bring the vulnerable and disenfranchised into the voting process. Can we? Our democracy depends on it.