On Wednesday, advocates around the world blocked traffic, dropped banners, and held candlelight vigils to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, which aims to spark policies that bring an end to a crisis that has killed over 1 million people since 1999.
In New York City, roughly 200 people gathered outside of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Manhattan office, shouting “no more drug war” and demanding that she authorize overdose prevention centers across the state. Nine protesters were arrested for blocking traffic during the action.
“It’s exhausting to keep experiencing loss after loss after loss, and to keep fighting without a proper response to this epidemic from politicians,” said Alicia Singham Goodwin, drug policy campaign coordinator at VOCAL-NY, which helped organize the action.
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on an already harrowing crisis, with overdose death rates rising 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, and another 15 percent from 2020 to 2021. The crisis has hit Black and Indigenous communities the hardest, with overdose deaths rising by 44 percent and 39 percent respectively.
“The disproportionate increase in overdose death rates among Blacks and American Indian/Alaska Native people may partly be due to health inequities like unequal access to substance use treatment and treatment biases,” Dr. Debra Houry, acting principal deputy director of the CDC, told reporters during a briefing in July.
Advocates have long called for a shift in policy from drug criminalization to harm reduction, which aims to reduce drug users’ risk of death or infectious disease through widespread access to testing kits, sterile needles and naloxone, an easily-administered medication that can rapidly reverse opioid overdoses.
In Boston, thousands of purple flags were planted in front of the state house to honor Massachusetts residents who’ve died of drug overdoses in the past 10 years, and in New Hampshire, dozens gathered for a rally and vigil in front of the state capitol. Across Canada, First Nation communities organized awareness walks to mourn overdose victims and call for harm reduction policies.
And, in California, a coalition of over 50 groups advocating for harm reduction held rallies across the state on Wednesday, just a week after Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed legislation that would have funded safe consumption sites in Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“Governor Newsom not only used his pen to cosign our participants to death, he did so while blaming his choice on our harm reduction infrastructure,” Soma Snakeoil, executive director of Sidewalk Project, said in a press statement.
In New York City, two groundbreaking overdose prevention centers — the first of their kind in the country — have already reversed over 400 overdoses since opening their doors last November. The sites provide a supervised setting for people who use drugs to be monitored by medical professionals, as well as receive HIV and Hepatitis C testing, hot meals, showers and access to other services, including medication-assisted drug treatment.
“We know they work. We know they save lives. We know they improve communities,” said Singham Goodwin of the centers. “We know that loving, affirming, harm reduction is the way to go, and having only two for all of New York State just doesn’t cut it. We need them across New York City and we need them across New York state this year.”
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