Why is Harm Reduction important?

The stigma on sharing needles or using naloxone can cause unnecessary overdoses. More on what Harm Reduction is and why it’s so important here.

minute read
By Sam Knight

The War On Harm Reduction

Well it finally came to this.

My best friend for years, from my middle school lacrosse team, was lying on the ground pale and blue in the face; eyes rolled back in his head. He shot a bag of dope, laced with fentanyl I presume.

I had been on a heavy run for months with him, spending days at a time at the dealer’s house. He had been sniffing and I was using the needle, hiding that fact from him. As soon as he found out I was shooting he switched right on over. After months of swearing he would never EVER use a needle… there he was, dead on the floor with a pin in his arm.

Panic consumed my body. I could barely move from shock.

A minute before I was barely conscious myself from a heroin induced stupor, now I was trembling from a rush of adrenaline scrambling around the apartment like a madman. Our other buddy got on top of him, starting chest compressions and shouting at me.

Was this it? Are we going to jail? Do we hide the drugs? Do we call 911? Do we put him outside? A million ideas went racing through my mind and could barely keep myself together.

A Prepared Addict

Luckily, the witty criminal that I was, I had prepared for the worst scenario. Illegally of course, I had obtained 2 vials of precious naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote. I dumped my backpack all over the floor and grabbed one of the vials. It came with a large muscle needle. With my other friend screaming at me in panic I filled the syringe, then jammed it into his thigh. It came with no instructions, I had no idea how much to use or where to inject. I just injected as much as I could into his leg.

As my world melted around me my best friend’s eyes began to move. He coughed up some gunk and rolled around in confusion. I nearly collapsed in relief. This is when I saw first hand and understood the need for this drug.

My friend was not a bad kid. He had always done well in school. He was attending a University, from a good neighborhood, with a good family. Would he really have deserved to die?

I received the antidote on the forum site Reddit. I was an avid user on the subreddit “Opiates”, always looking for the inside scoop. I had heard of one of the user’s mailing naloxone to people in states where it is hard to come by. I messaged her and days later I had my own Naloxone in my mailbox, for free. Thank God for people like this.

All around the country you hear these stories. Get on Reddit Opiates and see the stories of drug addicts saving one another.

What is Harm Reduction, Exactly?

Harm reduction methods can include:

  • “Spoons” for “cooking” the drugs (which can also carry disease if not sterile)
  • Alcohol swabs
  • Clean cotton
  • Clean Needles
  • Educational material
  • Naloxone
  • Safe disposal of used needles
  • Sterile water packets
  • Tourniquets

Narcan – The Illegal Wonder Drug

What is Naloxone?” you ask?

It is a harmless antidote that blocks opioids from the receptors in the brain and reverses opioid induced respiratory arrest. The drug cannot get you high. The drug has no other use and has almost no adverse side effects, unless you are allergic to it. If you inject it into a sober person it does nothing, but when injected in a person on opiates they no longer feel the effects, and if addicted, begin to withdrawal. It now comes in an injector or nasal spray. They even make automated devices that talk you through the process.

“Over 44,000 people die from accidental drug overdoses every year in the United States and most of those deaths are from opioids, including controlled substance pain medication and illegal drugs such as heroin.” said Tom Davis, vice president of pharmacy professional practices at CVS/pharmacy.

According to the FDA, “Drug overdose deaths, driven largely by prescription drug overdoses, are now the leading cause of injury death in the United States – surpassing motor vehicle crashes.” They also stated that naloxone can reverse the effects of opioid overdose, usually within two minutes.

Luckily the FDA is working to change laws, and many states are changing their laws to allow for nasal naloxone spray to be available over the counter.

Needle Exchanges – Proven Prevention of Blood Borne Illness

The other problem is needles. Many states do not allow needle exchanges, or have laws that make them difficult to operate. In states with needle exchanges, one brings in their used needles and is given new and sterile equipment. In my home state of Virginia, law prohibits anyone of possessing a hypodermic needle for the use of illicit drug abuse. So, in Virginia, it is a crime to possess these used needles. Therefore, collecting them is illegal.

The problem is not necessarily distributing needles, because this can be hard to prove what the syringes are being used for. The real problem is proper disposal. Improper disposal of needles means they are thrown in garbage cans, on the ground, or left in parks. I remember multiple occasions in Walmart in Richmond, VA where I had seen used syringes laying in the middle of aisles.

Lack of needle exchanges leads to people using the same syringe over and over, or sharing them with a friend. This leads to the spread of disease. This paired with no available source to dispose of them properly leads to even more spread.

The University of California San Francisco conducted a study of 81 cities around the world comparing HIV infection rates among intravenous drug users in cities that had needle exchange programs and cities that did not have needle exchanges. In the 52 cities without needle exchanges, HIV infection rates increased by 5.9% per year on average. In the 29 cities with needle exchanges, HIV infection rates decreased by 5.8% per year.

Get With The Program!

Providing harm reduction programs not only gives addicts a chance to survive, but it keeps the community cleaner. It prevents the spread of disease inside and outside of the intravenous drug using community. The stigma needs to be ended on addiction for the epidemic to be addressed.

If laws and society keep treating addicts as criminals rather than sick people, then the disease will only spread. The negative backlash of addiction will spread to non addicts and our communities will be littered. Help promote harm reduction, not only for the addicts, but for society as a whole.

About the Author: Sam Knight is the Outreach Director for DetoxLocal.com. He is in recovery from alcoholism and heroin addiction. Now he works to spread treatment resources, addiction awareness, and harm reduction education.
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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