August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day — a day when we take time to remember those we’ve lost and work to make sure we don’t lose any more. Drug overdose is currently the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.
The causes underlying the overdose crisis are complicated, and there isn’t a simple singular solution. But we need to be thinking beyond 12-step programs and “Just Say No.” While basic harm reduction interventions like sterile syringe access are a good first step, they don’t go far enough. It’s time for bold, new solutions that save lives and deliver critical resources and information to the people most at risk of an overdose.
Overdose prevention centers, also known as supervised consumption sites, are a proven approach in reducing drug-related deaths. They offer sterile, controlled settings for people to use pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of trained professionals who can intervene in case of an overdose or other medical event. They also provide health care, counseling, and referrals to health and social services, including drug treatment.
DPA has led the effort to implement these centers nationwide, but we’re fighting against the fear and stigma around drug use. This is one solution we can’t afford to ignore.
Recent increases in overdose deaths are driven by synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which is being introduced into the heroin supply. Most users don’t appear to be seeking fentanyl and are not aware that their drugs may contain fentanyl.
Fentanyl checking strips, originally designed for urine drug tests, are now being used to test for the presence or absence of fentanyl. When people are aware of fentanyl in their drugs, they may choose not to use them, use more slowly, or use with others who have naloxone.
Canada is going even further by opening “safe supply” programs that provide prescription opioids like hydromorphone for people at high risk of an overdose. Participants in these programs receive a fentanyl-free dose injected under medical supervision. This keeps them away from the adulterated street supply and greatly reduces their risk of an overdose.
Telling teens to “Just Say No” to drugs doesn’t work. Unlike D.A.R.E and other abstinence-only programs, DPA’s drug education program, Safety First, is based on the philosophy of harm reduction. It is designed to foster open and honest conversations about drugs and drug-related risks, like overdose, among teens, educators and parents.
We’re releasing Safety First next month! Get on our mailing list so you can be one of the first to download the new curriculum.
Methadone and buprenorphine are medications used to treat opioid addiction. These therapies cut overdose death risk in half. But the stigma associated with drug use has blocked the widespread adoption of life-saving treatment options like these, in addition to policy barriers that make both medications difficult for patients to access.
In the United States, methadone can only be accessed at federally licensed Opioid Treatment Programs (OTPs) and most patients are required to attend these programs up to six days a week in order to receive their medication. This presents tremendous barriers for people living in rural communities and in areas with limited access to transportation.
Buprenorphine can only be prescribed by doctors and certain other health care providers who have received an advanced training and waiver from the government. Due to these hurdles, the majority of doctors in the United States have not received this training and cannot prescribe this life-saving medication to their patients.
If we want to get serious about ending the current crisis, we need to support the evidence-based harm reduction and treatment interventions that work.
Each year, there are more than 1.6 million drug arrests in the U.S., most for possession only. DPA supports decriminalizing all drugs, which means no one would face criminal penalties for drug possession or low-level sales.
Decriminalization would prioritize the health and safety of people who use drugs over punishment. It would also reduce the stigma associated with drug use so that more people are encouraged to come out of the shadows and seek treatment and other support.
If you’re interested in exploring these and other ground-breaking solutions to the overdose crisis, join us at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference this November in St. Louis, MO. Reform attendees have the opportunity to spend three days interacting with leading experts committed to finding alternatives to the war on drugs. Register now to attend Reform.
DPA is working to shift our approach to drug use away from punitive measures by advocating for solutions that value life. Help us move towards a reality in which we embrace education, health and harm reduction. Donate or leave a gift in honor of a loved one to #EndOverdose today.