“Amongst us is a 14 year heroin user. Try and guess who it is. I think it’ll teach you a lot about stigma.”
This was the start to “Community Conversations: Opioids and the Overdose Epidemic” on Thursday night in Luther Place Church, hosted by HIPS. HIPS is a DC-based organization providing harm reduction services, advocacy, and community engagement for promoting public health. Our team joined last night’s conversation and left with a wealth of knowledge about the realities of the opioid crisis in DC, something that couldn’t be gained from news articles or academic research.
We began with the academic research, however, to set the context for why the conversations were being hosted in the first place. With 34.7 deaths per 100,000 people, DC has the third highest rate of opioid-overdose deaths in the country, more than double the national average of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people. This is happening even while DC has half the rate of opioid prescriptions compared to the national average, or 28.5 prescriptions per 100 people compared to 58.7 prescriptions per 100. Why?
Because fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin, is being increasingly laced with other drugs, making people who normally safely use drugs unexpectedly overdose. In fact, during the first nine months of 2018, percentage of overdoses involving fentanyl rose by 81 percent. HIPS, on a mission to raise awareness of fentanyl, has been spreading the word about fentanyl’s potency and distributing fentanyl test strips, allowing people to know if their drug supply is laced.
HIPS also educated us on harm reduction programs, which focus on minimizing the harmful effects of drug use. This can include providing safe syringe access. Despite the stigma that harm reduction only enables drug use, harm reduction has proven effective in weaning people off of addiction. After the knowledge dissemination, HIPS conducted training on how to administer Naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug, and provided free samples.
We ended the night learning that the nurse who led the discussion, the nurse who dedicated her life to serving those in need, had been the 14 year heroin user. Attending the conversation was humbling. It is not the fancy policy experts, the trendy health startups, or the prestigious medical providers who are on the frontlines of the opioid crisis; it is the community organizers who fight the battle every day, working in real time to make real change.
Samhitha Sunkara is a rising Junior at Duke University. She is majoring in Economics and minoring in Computer Science. She is passionate about development economics and financial empowerment. On campus, she is involved with the Community Empowerment Fund, Duke Impact Investing Group, and Duke Women in Politics. In her free time, she dances on a Bhangra team and bullet journals. She is excited to be with Pilleve this summer and can't wait to explore D.C.!