I am a little embarrassed to admit when my friend/colleague mentioned Dr. Joycelyn Elders I had no idea who she was talking about (blame the public school system if you like) and it wasn’t until I went home and hit up Google that I learned of this remarkable woman, who not only helped pave the way for me as a Black woman professional, but also as a Black woman drug policy reformer.
Inspired by Ms. Edith Irby Jones, the first African American to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School, Elders embarked on a career as a physician. After being discharged from the Army in 1956, she too enrolled at the University of Arkansas Medical School. Overcoming poverty, sexism, and racism very early on Elders continued advancing in her field. In 1987, Elders was appointed the head of the Arkansas Department of Health by then-Governor Bill Clinton where she successfully championed for a wide range of issues, most notably sex education and substance-abuse prevention.
In 1993, as President, Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Elders to U.S. Surgeon General, making her the first African American and second woman to hold the position. She continued to advocate for comprehensive sex education for teens and was censured by the Clinton Administration for her comments on drug legalization in the United States. Her beliefs and fearlessness led to her being fired as U.S. Surgeon General in 1994.
"If drugs were more available, there will be more users, but not more addicts. Only 5 percent [of those who take drugs] become addicted," Elders said in an interview with the Memphis Flyer “ [W]e need to educate young people not to use drugs, and we need to keep it out of their hands. But we don't need to make them criminals [if they do use drugs]. Once they get out of prison, only 20 percent [of those serving time on drug charges] will ever get a job."
Some speculate her comments led to the arrest of her son Kevin, who served 10 years in prison for drug charges. Elders continues to express her views on drug legalization and compassion to a wide range of audiences today. In 2010, Elders told the New York Times, “We need to lift the prohibition on marijuana.”
I am fairly new to this movement, but that doesn’t minimize my ability to empathize with Elders when she courageously spoke out on these issues at a time when many people were either incapable of understanding or unwilling to listen, particularly to a Black woman.
I would be lying if I said it has been easy for me going back to my hometown, Mount Vernon, NY, which was nearly destroyed by drug abuse and crime, talking about the difference between drug use and abuse, or compassion and treatment instead of judgment and criminalization for drug users. I recall both my mother and grandfather asking, “Alexis is this what we sent you to college for?” I’m reminded of the youth group I once volunteered with and their unwillingness to host a Know Your Rights and drug safety presentation for the kids. And I will never forget the fear I felt when I first tried to talk to my pastor about medical marijuana in New York and his inability to get past the word marijuana.
Dr. Elders’ courage to speak her mind gave me a new level of appreciation and gratitude for this woman. She has encouraged me, and I’m sure many others, to persevere and always say what’s real.
Dr. Elders, “there’s no way I can pay you back. But my plan is to show you that I understand. You are appreciated.”
Alexis Posey is a New York policy associate for the Drug Policy Alliance.
*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance, New York Policy Office.