BHRC’s Position on Amendments to SB420 (Paraphernalia Decriminalization)

Monday, March 29, 2021

Proposed policy Criminal Law – Drug Paraphernalia for Administration – Decriminalization (House Bill 372 and Senate Bill 420) has the potential to become law this year, increasing public health and safety. Over the past week, the Maryland House of Delegates passed HB372 (91-39) and the Maryland Senate passed SB420 with amendments (31-16). Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition (BHRC) and our community is proud of the work towards decriminalization thus far, especially the efforts of bill champions Senator Jill Carter and Delegate David Moon.

If passed as written, House Bill 372 would: 1) redefine “controlled” paraphernalia to support public health and reduce drug war tactics that target drug users; 2) repeal existing portions of law that criminalize possession of paraphernalia for personal use; and, 3) reduce or eliminate penalty for possession of paraphernalia for delivery or sale. If passed as amended, Senate Bill 420 would not include #3 above, continuing to criminalize possession of paraphernalia.

BHRC does not agree with the amendments to SB420 and urges the Maryland legislature to move HB372 without amendments. We deeply value Senator Carter for working tirelessly for this policy, and understand the challenges posed by Senators Ready, Cassily, and Hough. However, the amendments to SB420 would allow for police involvement and prosecution of people carrying paraphernalia if said officers determine the supplies are for delivery, distribution, or sale. These amendments would continue to put the health and safety of our workers and our communities at risk.

Just last Thursday March 25, a participant of an authorized syringe service program in Baltimore City was arrested and jailed for attempting to bring items considered paraphernalia to a loved one in another county who needed these life-saving supplies. This SSP participant was, and continues to be, punished for trying to help someone achieve greater safety and serve public health goals. Regardless of whether or not the charges are dropped, this person has had their life turned upside down, spent multiple days risking exposure to COVID and not been able to attend to their loved ones. 

This story is too common in Maryland, and this is why we need to decriminalize possession of paraphernalia under any circumstance right now. If distribution, delivery, and sales of paraphernalia are not protected, our state’s public health is under threat.  

If the Senate Judicial Proceedings (JPR) Committee does not agree to the House version, members of JPR and the House Judiciary Committee will need to decide on a version of the bill in conference committee. This would further delay the process and clog the urgent agenda of these busy committees. 

Maryland must decriminalize paraphernalia now and ensure that, as Delegate David Moon says, “the syringe does not come with jail.” We are requesting that JPR support HB372 as written to ensure that the logic of the law is sound and that there are no major loopholes to re-criminalize people for carrying life-saving supplies. 

Hand Washing for the People

By Dave Fell

In mid-March of this year, the city of Oakland, CA partnered with Alameda County to provide assistance to unsheltered residents of the area. According to a post on the city’s website dated March 13th, this partnership managed to install 42 portable toilets and wash stations at 19 new encampments (not counting the additional 20 encampments already receiving health and hygiene services, pre-pandemic). (1)

At the same time, the neighboring city of Berkeley, CA set up at least 20 hand washing stations at parks, libraries, and homeless encampments around the city. According to Deputy City Manager Paul Buddenhagen, the monthly cost for the stations is roughly $2,000. The city even created a virtual map for constituents showing the locations of the hygiene resources. (2, 3)

In Baltimore, however, the response of leadership was much less urgent. In April, The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services (MOHS) posted a list of items it needed help procuring, and at the top of that list was “mobile hand washing stations” so that unhoused or intermittently housed folks can stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic by regularly and thoroughly washing their hands and bodies. This is when I fired off that first email, beginning a long and frustrating correspondence with a small, underfunded, and understaffed city agency.

The short version is that I linked MOHS up with a close friend who manages a hardware store in the city, and as a team we decided on and ordered (on the city’s dime) a number of “camp showers” to be put up in strategic locations throughout Baltimore. The plan was that MOHS, with assistance from the Department of Public Works (DPW), would install and maintain these camp showers. 

Very simply, a camp shower is a (somewhat) strong vinyl bag that holds 5 gallons of water. Attached is a hose and a little showerhead with an on/off switch. Just affix it a tree branch or a street sign, provide some soap, and there you have it: a DIY hand washing station. (It should be noted that the pre-fab style of wash station that you may have seen at Artscape or your favorite EDM festival were either out of stock or seriously price-gouged, ruling out that option).

Mission accomplished! The city’s got it from here, right? 

(pause for uproarious laughter)

No, the city don’t got it. 

Remember, if you want to derail a simple, inexpensive action aimed at helping the unhoused population of Baltimore, just insert a bureaucrat into the process! A mere four days after MOHS paid for and picked up the camp showers from my friend’s hardware store, I was told that a “consultant” had been hired to inspect the way MOHS operates. 

This “consultant” did little more than kick the can down the road and waste time by requiring a proposal for the hand washing station project that would then have to be supported by every member of City Council! They claimed to have received a lot of push back on this idea and wanted to “make sure that resources are provided appropriately with the full support of all agencies and communities involved.” 

Ok, so let me understand–you want unhoused Baltimoreans (who are already at the converging point of multiple systemic crises) to wait patiently while people who have homes, running water, soap, income, and food spend weeks deciding whether the homeless will be allowed to wash their hands during the deadliest public health pandemic in our lifetime? A pandemic in which one of the strongest lines of defense is HAND WASHING?

We ended up clawing back the camp showers from MOHS, and installed and maintained a few ourselves (with some inspiring results), but ultimately this was not even close to a permanent solution, and as a loosely affiliated group of activists, we didn’t have coffers of money to fund something more robust, so the project fizzled.

Now that October has come and the COVID-19 pandemic is still in full swing, I can’t help but remember what Mayor Jack Young told the Baltimore Sun all the way back on May 5th:

“We’re going to always take care of our homeless population, no matter what.” (4)

He was responding to questions about why on earth there was a major leadership and staff shake up at MOHS just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to grip Baltimore.

Mayor Young is straight up lying, because there has been grassroots energy advocating for public hygiene resources since March and absolutely nothing has been done by the City of Baltimore to make this common sense solution a reality. In fact, more effort was put into blocking the project!

It was a no-brainer for Oakland and Berkeley, because in those places real, substantial homeless outreach is not unprecedented like it is here. Every resident of Baltimore deserves health, dignity, and protection from death, disease, and despair. 

But for now, we will build our own (stronger, more permanent) hand washing stations. We will install them and we will stand next to them and make a hell of a lot of noise until city leaders recognize that THIS IS THEIR JOB! 



When COVID-19 Harm Reduction is Met with White Feminist Islamaphobia

By Smitha Mahesh, with Rajani Gudlavalleti

Content Warning: Islamophobia, sexism, racism

As usual, I am scrolling through Twitter, to get the latest tea on celebrities and politicians and refresh my soul with a feed filled with daily pictures of big fluffy bunnies, corgis, and pandas. 

But of course, my joyous vibe came to a halt when I came across this: 

My first reaction was one of confusion. Then it transformed into disgust and ultimately into anger. To clarify and emphasize, I am a South Asian Hindu who does not wear face coverings for religious purposes — and I am deeply hurt and offended by this image, primarily in solidarity with I my fellow Muslim friends (especially women and femmes) who wear niqabs, hijabs, burquas, or any form of covering of their face. Everyone has the right to religious freedom and deserves the  choice to wear any other forms of religious or cultural covering on their face. 

I later find out that this tweet has been made by a bot and has since been removed. Unfortunately, the screenshot of the tweet made its way through other platforms of social media. But, alas I sat alone with my feelings, truly frustrated at viewing this tweet and not having any idea of who to talk about this — until Rajani spoke up. 

Rajani, a fellow Indian American woman, was angrily startled when she suddenly came across this image scrolling down her feed; but her lack of surprise was possibly more difficult for her to bear. Rajani is very familiar with the racial profiling, targeting, and community violence that has occured in the name of the same sentiments expressed in this image. In September 2001, she was a high school sophomore in California when the planes hit the twin towers in New York City. 

My entire life shifted from the moment those planes hit those buildings. I was 16 years old. A child from an immigrant family that was struggling to find stability amidst financial, health and emotional strains. A child confused at the racially charged conflation of Hinduism (my family’s religion), Sikhism, and Islam. Confused at my survival-mode desire to distance myself from these conflations. My deeply angry desire to take down all racist Islamaphobes. Mostly, I was confused at the feminist white femme friends who wanted to help “liberate” me. Honestly, it took me a good decade or so before I truly saw the horror of that manifestation of white feminism.

When Rajani brought up the offensive tweet and how it impacted her, I realized this is beyond two  women/femmes from Hindu families feeling frustrated by  ongoing Islamophobia. This is an example of White Feminism. 

White Feminism excludes Black, Brown and Trans women and femmes from conversations around our collective liberation. But how exactly does this work? White feminism on the surface does support forms of liberation and choice, but it abstains from supporting any form of agency. Whether that be the agency of sex workers to charge sexual performs/work that looks like sex, or the agency to cover your body as you wish. But why, you ask? Because White Feminism is, well, White: it excludes Black voices, Brown voices, Trans voices, or any voice from a racial/ethnic group that is not White. For instance, White feminism wholeheartedly supports freeing the nipple, but abstains from supporting women having the choice to wear hijabs, burqa, or any form of face covering, even if that choice is rooted in honoring cultural heritage. 

This mentality is demonstrated even on a larger level: policy. European governments, such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands,  have systematically banned face coverings and yet they are allowing face masks during COVID19. Policy makers in these governments manipulate “women’s equality” to uphold their Islamophobia; framing full-face veils as a symbol of oppression of women as well as a threat to national security. In Hong Kong, authorities imposed a blanket ban on wearing face masks in protest. The collective mindset that criminalizes face masks  has led to a disproportionate restriction of rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. As we continue bracing through the COVID-19 pandemic, governments should recognize the racism and Islamophobia behind these types of policies. 

As a movement rooted in public health and social justice, Harm Reduction must explore and actively work to dismantle the -isms that create barriers to health, safety, justice and dignity for all people. Publicly providing and encouraging people to adorn Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), especially face coverings, may be met with similar racist and Islamaphobic sentiments. What will you do in that moment, harm reduction fam? How will you respond? How will you act in solidarity with Muslim women and femmes?

This conversation has not started here, nor does it end here. Below are some resources to read, digest, and discuss to continue this dialogue with your communities: