There is a sense of desperation on Edmonton streets as outreach workers battle drug poisonings while Alberta recorded its highest-ever number of opioid fatalities in a single month. In an update to the province’s Substance Use Surveillance Data this week, Alberta recorded 179 opioid deaths in April, the highest number of opioid fatalities recorded in a single month since 175 deaths were reported in December 2021. In total, 613 Albertans died from an opioid poisoning between January and April this year. Data for May has not been released. February saw 151 opioid deaths, up from the 115 recorded in January.
A group of children from the Pala Band of Mission Indians was walking home from school in 2016 when they found a plastic bag holding 100 bright blue pills. The kids tossed the bag back and forth as they walked to the tribe’s youth center, where they turned it into the staff. The staff at the youth center quickly called law enforcement, who informed them the pills were fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. That same year, 16 youths from the Pala Band of Mission Indians died of opioid overdoses. For the California tribe — which has a population of around 1,000— the losses were a devastating sign that the opioid epidemic had gained footing in their community.
The criminalization of drugs hasn’t kept them from becoming a public health hazard — and we can’t just pretend they don’t exist. More than 106,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2021 in the United States, a number that has doubled since 2015. Three-quarters of the overdose deaths in 2021 were from opioid use, and nearly 3 million Americans struggle with opioid use disorder today. To help affected people, many are arguing for a policy of “harm reduction” to make drug use less risky. Sites provide clean syringes and alcohol wipes to prevent the spread of infectious diseases for IV drug users, for example and are prepared with oxygen masks and the anti-overdose drug naloxone to help manage bad reactions.
Last year, I hid behind an abandoned building in East Baltimore with three guys who all used heroin together as they tested their drugs, injected them, and made sure they were there for each other in case any of them overdosed. It was about 8AM in the middle of January 2020, sunny but cold, and “D”—Black, in his late thirties, without a home, and requesting anonymity for obvious reasons—held court behind a vacant rowhouse. D saw to it that he and his friends were as safe as possible—he’s more fastidious and more experienced than the others. Heroin had been part of his life for about 20 years. “I’ve been using off and on,” D explained to me. “Mostly on.” Most mornings back then, D and his friends looked out for one another because they understood that they were most likely to overdose when they used alone.
Two weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released sobering statistics showing a record-breaking number of drug overdoses in the U.S. in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 260 advocacy groups called on lawmakers Tuesday to urgently pass public health proposals to mitigate the crisis. Led by the Drug Policy Alliance, People's Action, the National Harm Reduction Coalition, and VOCAL-NY, the organizations said the unprecedented number of overdoses in the 12-month period ending in April 2021 was "grim, but not unexpected" considering the criminalization of drug use in the United States and lack of resources for people with drug use disorders.
A colleague of mine, Dan Bigg of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, died on August 21 at his home. Bigg was at the forefront of bringing harm reduction into practice in the United States. The Fix called Dan "The Patron Saint of Harm Reduction" in a notable 2014 interview, and the Chicago Tribune described his work as "revolutionary." As a result of Bigg's efforts, friends and colleagues said, thousands of people who would have died from infections or overdoses are still alive - a flesh and blood legacy of the "harm reduction" philosophy Bigg helped to popularize.