As we move through the remembrance and grief of International Overdose Awareness Day to the optimism and resilience of National Recovery Month, it may be helpful to take a moment to reflect on the current state of the overdose epidemic in the United States.
Nearly 108,000 people died from drug overdose in 2021 — a number so large it is nearly impossible to adequately conceptualize, much less process.
It would be hard enough to attempt to cope with the ever-growing death toll of the overdose epidemic on its own, but it is so much harder to bear when we know that most of these tragic deaths were preventable through education, harm reduction interventions and non-coercive treatment and recovery services.
But not everything is bleak.
We do have elected officials who are becoming increasingly willing to adopt harm reduction approaches to the overdose epidemic, including many within the Biden administration. Since taking office, President Biden has promoted harm reduction interventions in ways that we have not seen from the White House before. These efforts include openly calling for increased harm reduction funding in a State of the Union address and helping secure a $30 million dollar grant for syringe services programs and other harm reduction organizations as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
There is certainly plenty of room for growth around issues like the federal implementation of harm reduction funding and on support for overdose prevention centers, drug decriminalization, and naloxone access, but progress is being made.
Unfortunately, harm reduction has increasingly been caught in the partisan political crossfire in recent years, with life-saving public health interventions often weaponized by politicians who care far more about their own re-election chances than they do the lives of their constituents. Given the current makeup of Congress and the unwillingness of many in the House and Senate to support harm reduction interventions, there is not much chance of passage for the substantial reforms and funding increases that are needed to ensure the health of people who use drugs in the United States.
But we can change this.
This November, we have the opportunity to vote for Congressional candidates who will fight alongside us for the rights and well-being of people who use drugs. We can elect a Congress that will finally remove the federal syringe funding ban for syringe services programs and support meaningful investment into harm reduction organizations that are doing the work required to turn the tide on the overdose epidemic in the U.S.
And, while it is also essential to vote for pro-harm reduction candidates in your state and local election, please know that not everyone has the benefit of living in a state or county or city where those candidates have a realistic chance at winning.
Far too many people who use drugs live in states that are governed by legislatures that are openly hostile to evidence-based drug user health practices and do not support syringe services programs or access to lifesaving naloxone and fentanyl test strips. For a lot of harm reduction providers in more conservative states and localities, federal support is their best — and often only — chance to receive government funding for the services they offer.
Right now, we are at a critical moment in the evolution of drug user health care in this country. We can either continue to move forward into a new era where our elected officials actually support people who use drugs to live their best lives or fall back into the racist and dehumanizing drug policies of the past. The direction we go will be determined by the makeup of this next Congress — and what that makeup looks like depends on whether or not we go to the polls in November.