In ‘Dope is Death,’ community activists use acupuncture to fight drug addiction

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Originally Published in Vox Magazine

Dope is Death tells the compelling story of how Dr. Mutulu Shakur teamed up with the Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican human rights organization Young Lords to combat the systemic heroin problem in South Bronx in the ’70s and ’80s.

They did this through an unexpected technique: acupuncture.

Their radical harm reduction program was seen as a revolutionary act against the U.S. government at the time. The treatment subdued withdrawal symptoms experienced by drug addicts.

The film, directed by Mia Donovan, uses interviews from leaders of the movement, the clinic and the patients along with archival footage and photos.

It follows Dr. Shakur, who is the stepfather to rapper Tupac Shakur, and his legacy in creating the Lincoln Detox Acupuncture Center. The detox program was created in response to President Nixon’s methadone maintenance program but placed an emphasis on chemical-free treatment.

With the help of Mutulu Shakur, the program treated hundreds of patients and provided affordable and quality healthcare. Despite funding challenges, the clinic still operates to this day.

Juan Cortez and Walter Basque are two acupuncturists highlighted in the documentary who still carry on the work that was rooted in radical politics.

Basque became certified at the first clinic with Shakur and witnessed firsthand the relentless efforts of the government and corporate officials to dismantle their movement when they saw how empowering their influence had become.

After the film’s world premiere at Ragtag Cinema at True/False, Donovan and Cortez participated in a live Q&A.

Cortez explained that the struggle is not over. Shakur is now in prison due to an unjust RICO act that convicted him on circumstantial evidence. Heroin is still pushed into communities by people of power to destroy low-income communities and numb those fighting for a better life.

“I’m going to fight until my last breath until justice is served,” Cortez says.

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