Southern States Slowly Embracing Harm Reduction to Curb Opioid Epidemic []


Southern states are embracing harm reduction techniques, including naloxone and needle exchanges, more than ever before. But some conservatives say there’s a limit to their support.

As a top agent with North Carolina’s Bureau of Investigation, Donnie Varnell had tried everything to stop people from fatally overdosing on opioids, from arresting more low-level drug users to talking with doctors. Nothing worked. In 2014, he heard a former SWAT commander speak to law enforcement officers about carrying the opioid antidote naloxone. “I’ve arrested more people than you can put on a cruise ship,” Varnell said, recalling the speech. “But the message — and the messenger — resonated with me. He spoke cop. But he also had ideas, programs and studies. I could see naloxone wasn’t dangerous.”

Soon Varnell was traveling the state, working with drug policy activists to convince other officers to carry the overdose-reversal drug. He also embraced syringe exchanges, using data — nearly 1 in 3 officers get stuck with a syringe during the course of their career — to persuade fellow officers to support exchanges. And he even educated police chiefs concerned about the costs and liability of naloxone and needles.

Since the 1990s, activists in cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and New York have led the nation in practicing harm reduction, a set of tools such as needle exchanges and naloxone distribution designed to help people addicted to drugs make incremental improvements to their health. But in the Bible Belt, many Southerners who held conservative views often criticized harm reduction as something that encouraged — not ended — the use of drugs. Those practices, in many states, were banned outright.

But attitudes have shifted, given the sheer scale of the epidemic, proof that some harm reduction efforts save lives as well as taxpayer dollars, and the changing cultural view of drug users. “Over time, harm reduction became seen as something that’s common sense,” said Michael-Devereux Louis Bertin, executive director of the South Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. “There’s a whole new wave of support for harm reduction in the South.”

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