A conversation with the SOAR Initiative about harm reduction in Ohio

The SOAR Initiative is a community-based harm reduction nonprofit based in Columbus, Ohio, which provides direct services to established and underground syringe services programs, grassroots harm reductionists and people who use drugs. SOAR’s mission is to build up powerful, healthy communities of people who use drugs by implementing innovative harm reduction strategies that advance connection through technology and advocating for policies that promote a safe supply.

As part of our Harm Reduction Highlights series, we spoke with SOAR to learn more about their work in community.

What got you involved in harm reduction? How did your organization get founded? 

In 2019, a student at the Ohio State University died of a drug overdose due to fentanyl-laced cocaine. This news inspired a group of first-year students who were previously unfamiliar with harm reduction to start volunteering at a local syringe exchange. These student leaders quickly became fascinated by and passionate about spreading harm reduction throughout the state, and they founded the SOAR Initiative to create innovative new harm reduction strategies.

In 2020, we launched our flagship Deadly Batch Alerts program in Columbus, modeled after a concept first created in Baltimore, which aims to enhance existing information-sharing networks between PWUD by allowing more individuals to enter the conversation. In early 2021, we started our mail-order fentanyl test strips program to enable Ohioans to test their drugs and share reports of fentanyl through the Deadly Batch Alerts system.

Today, we operate 11 Deadly Batch Alerts regions throughout the state of Ohio and have mailed more than 60,000 test strips to individuals and grassroots organizations.

What is the most important thing that people should know about your work? 

Our work is all about enhancing the power of individuals and grassroots organizations. By mailing out free syringes, fentanyl test strips, cookers and other safe use supplies to lay distributors, we empower individuals and underground SSPs to keep their communities safe. We believe that these often marginalized and underfunded initiatives are the cornerstone of community health, particularly in rural areas, so we strive to support their needs. Our Deadly Batch Alerts system builds on this emphasis by allowing individuals to share information with their communities rather than relying on traditional public health data sources.

What specific populations do you work with at your SSP? How do you tailor your programming to these populations and their needs?

Since SOAR was founded by college students, one of our target populations is opiate-naïve individuals who use drugs commonly laced with fentanyl, such as counterfeit pills and cocaine. This group often isn’t aware how prevalent fentanyl is in the drug supply, so we focus on providing not only concrete resources like test strips but also information about the overdose crisis.

We have seen the ways in which SSPs and community-based harm reduction programs have adapted services in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Could you speak to some of the innovative programming you’ve done?

When COVID-19 hit Ohio, we were no longer able to do in-person fentanyl test strip and syringe distribution. To keep providing resources to the community, we started our mail-order program. Not only has this program been resilient throughout the challenges of the pandemic, but it’s also enabled us to send supplies to areas that we may never have been able to reach in person. While internet connectivity is a hurdle for many of the populations we serve, our bulk shipments of supplies to grassroots distributors allows individuals who do have internet access to share lifesaving resources with those in their communities.

What has worked for you all during the age of COVID-19? What hasn’t worked?

Our mail-order supply distribution program, launched out of necessity when brick and mortar SSPs were forced to close during the pandemic, has grown tremendously in the past two years. Spread primarily through word of mouth, the number of people who use drugs and grassroots providers who have received supplies continues to increase. We have been able to reach people in almost every county in Ohio and serve diverse and marginalized populations.

Sustaining and commencing partnerships with public health institutions has been difficult during the pandemic. We rely on our partners at health departments across Ohio to provide overdose surge data to supplement community-generated Deadly Batch reports and build trust with people who use drugs, but the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched many of our partners thin. We have also limited our in-person outreach, reducing valuable facetime between our outreach workers and communities of people who use drugs.

Who makes your work possible? In what ways does this happen?

SOAR’s work wouldn’t be possible without the frontline outreach staff who promote our resources throughout the state. Our team of eight community outreach specialists live and work in six different areas of Ohio, allowing individuals from various parts of the state to engage in-person with our resources at pop-up outreach sessions, music festivals, recovery rallies, and other community events. In addition to spreading lifesaving resources to diverse populations, our community outreach specialists — many of whom have lived experience with substance use, the criminal justice system and sex work — guide the direction of our services by keeping the rest of our team informed about trends, feedback, and challenges throughout the state.

What enrages you when doing this work?

Ohio’s extreme prohibitionist laws treat fentanyl test strips and syringes as drug paraphernalia, severely restricting the funding available for our mail-order programs. It’s enraging to our team that, despite the countless benefits and lifesaving potential of safer use supplies, we can’t use a significant portion of our funding to purchase these materials. Support from organizations like AIDS United helps us bridge this gap, but as the demand for these resources increases across the state, we’re always struggling to keep our head above water. A bill that would drastically reform these paraphernalia laws has been sitting in state legislature committees for over a year, despite activists’ best efforts to liberate these resources in Ohio. The denial of funding for these resources in a state where they are so drastically needed is infuriating.

What motivates you?

At SOAR, we’re motivated by small victories in the ultimate fight for a safe supply and policy reform that will end the War on Drugs. We envision a world where all people who use any sort of drug will have access to knowledge of exactly what they are taking, and be able to trust that they will have continued access to a safe supply without facing stigma. We hope that tools like fentanyl test strips and services like our Deadly Batch Alert system will be rendered obsolete. By meeting people where they are and respecting autonomy, we can work toward building stronger communities that can advocate for the rights of people who use drugs.

Follow along with the AIDS United blog as we feature the work of more of our harm reduction grantee partners in community every day. For more information about AIDS United’s harm reduction work, visit our website: aidsunited.org/our-initiatives/harm-reduction/. To learn more about the work of SOAR, visit: thesoarinitiative.org/