By Chavon Borden
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Rajani Gudlavalleti could be called a lot of things: a secular humanist, a racial equity consultant or even a radical organizer. She has spent most of her adult life advocating for the homeless, sex workers, the disabled, those in prison and the LGBTQIA+ communities.
Today, the Baltimore City resident has a new long-term goal: creating safe spaces where drug addicts can use heroin and other illegal drugs under the supervision of medical personnel without the fear of being arrested.
An estimated 100 safe consumption spaces (SCS) have been operating in various places around the world and have helped prevent drug overdoses and the spread of diseases like HIV. In one study from England, for example, an SCS in Surrey reported zero deaths from overdoses out of nearly 20,000 visits since it opened last June.
In addition, a recent Abell Foundation study found that safe spaces reduce overdose deaths significantly. The report, which was written by Susan Sherman, a professor in the Department of Health, Behavior, and Society at Johns Hopkins University, said that Vancouver, British Columbia, saw a 35 percent reduction in overdoses around a safe-space facility compared with the rest of the city.
There are no legal safe consumption spaces in the United States yet, but Gudlavalleti is working to change that in Baltimore.
“If there is anything that this does, it prevents death and gives people another day, another chance,” said Gudlavalleti, who is a community organizer for an advocacy group called the BRIDGES Coalition. “But they also allow for bringing people indoors so that they feel safer. In Baltimore I think it’s really important.”
A bill was introduced in the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year that, if passed, would allow community-based organizations to establish “overdose and infectious disease prevention safer drug consumption” facilities as long as they got approval from state or local health officials. Similar legislation has been introduced in New York while Seattle has experimented with such facilities.
Under the Maryland bill, the facilities would have to be staffed with trained health care professionals. Drug users could consume pre-obtained drugs in the facilities, where they would also receive services like general health education or referrals for treatment.
Sherman said in an interview that the way a facility like this can work is only if law enforcement and community leaders support it. Without that support, she said, drug users would not feel safe using a SCS.
“This is very out of the box, people could get arrested the second they walk in the space,” Sherman said. “So there’s a lot of advocacy that needs to happen.”
Gudlavalleti said the BRIDGES Coalition has not identified any specific spaces for such a facility yet, adding that she is currently in the advocacy stage as she tries to build political support for the idea from city officials and local neighborhoods. She said the push for safe drug-use facilities is a multi-year project.
“We’re not going door to door, it’s more of community conversation about harm reduction and dialogues with people,” she said. “It’s a really big shift for people to support this. They’re not just going to sign yes or no for a bill. People really need to change their perspective.”
To build support for the idea, she said, the coalition will need to have conversations with people and organization to spread awareness.
She said the coalition is currently visiting with medical professionals and treatment providers at various organizations around the city to try to get them on board.
She said she expects opposition from the police and state legislators, but she hopes to convince them that the project is important.
“Contrary to common belief, SCS do not increase drug use,” she said. “The police would be the biggest group of opposition and one of the biggest concerns. And legislators — we have to convince them.”
Gudlavalleti said she doesn’t expect the bill to pass the General Assembly in 2018, but she said she will keep educating legislators about SCS in the hope that the city will have a safe consumption space within the next three years.
T.J. Smith, the spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, did not return phone calls for an interview.
Gudlavalleti said drug overdoses have been an issues for decades but only became a “crisis” when more white people became victims.
“It is really awful,” Gudlavalleti said. “At the same time, heroin and drug use has been rampant in communities of color. Black communities and people have been dying for decades. [African Americans] have faced criminalization and incarceration when it comes to their behaviors and their health. And now that it’s more white folks who are experiencing heroin and opioid use, now it’s more of a public health approach.”
Fighting for something like a safe-space in Baltimore isn’t a new thing for Gudlavalleti. She caught the bug for social activism when she worked in California in corporate philanthropy for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
“I got really into philanthropy and grant-making,” said Gudlavalleti, who graduated from Willamette University in 2003 and received her Master of Arts in public policy from Johns Hopkins in 2011.
While in graduate school, Gudlavalleti worked for an organization called Power Inside, which advocated for women who engaged in sex work. As a person of color, racial justice has always been important to Gudlavalleti. She said she was inspired by her parents, who immigrated to Canada and then the United States from south India.
“There’s this dream that people create [about America] and then they come here and it doesn’t fit,” she said. “Personal experience led me to this work. My parents and my brother are all rabble-rousers. We see injustice and we yell about it. It’s a part of my family.”