On this Overdose Awareness Day, we must look toward the future with optimism, and not dwell on the mistakes of the past

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day; a day to reflect and seek to better understand the addiction crisis.

For too many, it is also a day to mourn and grieve the thousands of people who have been lost to drug-related deaths. For those of us who are following the trends closely, it is also a day of hope and optimism. New Hampshire is finally seeing downward trends in opioid overdose deaths. We are seeing an amazing paradigm shift in the public perception of people who use drugs, as well as positive changes for the recovery community. There has also been a substantial increase in funding for programs that support the prevention, treatment, and recovery of substance use disorders. There is much to be grateful for on this Overdose Awareness Day.

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I have worked in the addiction treatment space in New Hampshire for the past three years and have recently seen treatment providers embrace harm reduction and evidence-based treatment options. Providers are now seeing this approach as a means of keeping people alive and more effectively addressing addiction.  We know that one must remain alive to enter recovery; and with harm reduction all drug-related death and disease is preventable. That philosophy is finally being put into practice here in NH. The Granite State has taken great measures to enhance overdose prevention efforts and has seen the implementation of syringe services programs statewide. These harm reduction strategies are proving to be effective in keeping people alive long enough to enter recovery, with data to prove it.

Nationwide, Americans are embracing an evidence-based stance that the solution to an addiction is not necessarily abstinence; it is connection. It is healthy meaningful connections built on dignity and respect. It is having basic human needs met. It is justice, equity, autonomy, personal liberty, and human rights; not punishment and contingencies. We are now providing treatment and prevention measures founded not only on the disease model of addiction, but we are now focusing on the social determinant of health. We are also beginning to address the structural violence of the War on Drugs. After more than 106 years of failed attempts at prohibition in America, we can today acknowledge that prohibition does not work and often does more harm than good.

Let’s be honest, we will never eradicate drug use. There is no recorded human history without drug use of some kind. Americans are living amongst more stress and chaos than ever. And that often necessitates self-medication to some degree. In place of the goal to eradicate drugs, perhaps it is time to redefine success. Keeping people alive is the new metric that matters, and harm reduction and drug policy reform are the means of achieving that goal.

Unfortunately, many people still celebrate the War on Drugs. Like they did with crack cocaine in the 1980s, lawmakers are doubling down on failed punitive policies like mandatory minimum sentencing for fentanyl, the militarization of police to address drugs in our community, coercive treatment, and other policies that offer punishment rather than support. One such policy is relatively new, and a frightening mistake with grave consequences. These policies are often referred to as “death-resulting convictions,” or drug-induced homicide laws. These measures are taking additional lives and not saving lives. Money that could be used for treatment and recovery is being given to the prison industrial complex. 

WATCH BELOW ⇓ More on the author’s personal story

No drug-induced homicide conviction is going to bring a person back to life. Instead, I have seen it retraumatize families, cause tremendous suffering, and ruin additional lives. It would be unlikely to meet a person who uses drugs that has not at some point shared drugs with another person. Sharing drugs is part of drug culture, and now that part of our culture is being used against us; offering lengthy prison sentences if, only by common bonding, one provides someone with their final dose of drugs. “Death resulting” convictions have done nothing but cause more suffering to grieving individuals and perpetuate the drug war. In New Hampshire these convictions are often handed to people who use drugs, not those who are working in high levels of distribution, as the laws were intended. If I am to one day die of drug poisoning, let it be known that I do not want my death to be used to proliferate the drug war and hold only myself responsible. 

On this Overdose Awareness Day, we must look toward the future with optimism, and not dwell on the mistakes of the past. We cannot undo history, but we can rewrite our future and pave the way for the end of the overdose crisis. Let’s make this Overdose Awareness Day a day for hope and change. Let’s look toward the future with a plan to improve our society, especially for those who are most vulnerable. Let’s celebrate the beginning of the end of War on Drugs. Let’s continue to advocate for sweeping legislative action that will effectively address this issue. 

Beyond legislation, we must elevate the voices of those who are most impacted by the drug war. We are the experts in this situation. The answers to solving this crisis are within the recovery community and the community of people who use drugs. As we watch our elected officials roll out ineffective and expensive drug war tactics, it is clear that they do not have the answers to this crisis. As more funding comes and we roll out strategies to combat the addiction crisis, we must remember that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. There should be no drug policy implemented without buy-in from the recovery community and from people who actively use drugs. Nothing about us without us. 

Ryan Fowler, CRSW, works for The Doorway at Granite Pathways in Manchester.

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