Ithaca community members gathered for a forum to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day and to keep the opioid epidemic at the forefront of public discussion.
International Overdose Awareness Day is a global event held on Aug. 31 of every year, with over 500 events taking place this year.
Its purpose is to make people aware of the frequency of overdoses, reduce stigma surrounding addiction, acknowledge the grief of families and friends, and spread the message that overdose related deaths are preventable, according to the event’s website.
“This forum is not to say, ‘Here is the solution, here is a solution, here are three solutions,’” said John C. Rowley ’82, a Tompkins County judge who described himself as a former addict. “This is a communication, a conversation, questions, a discussion.”
“People are dying, and there are proven public health measures that can and will save lives,” said Katharine Celentano, policy coordinator of the Drug Policy Alliance.
The event brought together a variety of experts, including social workers, law enforcement, practicing physicians and recovering addicts, to share their knowledge and perspectives about the situation and how to address it.
Many speakers discussed the importance of recognizing the historical context and structural racism that they said have contributed to the complex dynamics of the situation today.
“If we don’t know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it,” said Phoebe Brown, assistant coordinator at the Multicultural Resource Center’s re-entry program.
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said that the first time that drugs were made illegal in the U.S. was in 1914 in California, when Chinese-Americans who sold opium were being economically productive and competing against non-Chinese-Americans.
“I will tell you that every law we have ever passed to make drugs illegal and then punish people for using them was intended to take subsets of folks out of the economy, out of the voting booths and lock them away,” said Myrick, adding that both of his parents abused drugs.
Fabina Colon, director of the Multicultural Resource Center, said the crack epidemic in the 1980s was stereotypically portrayed as a phenomenon of the inner cities and “black, violent people.”
“What the response was during those times was very punitive,” she said. “This is where the war on drugs started … and the effect that had on communities of color was devastating.”
However, Myrick said the narrative is starting to change.
“Now, because this epidemic is affecting … white folks, frankly, the politics have started to change,” Myrick said.
In addition, Rowley elaborated on how the stigma associated with drug addiction leads to the prevalence of overdose-related casualties, because stigma can, he said, prevent people from getting the proper support they need.
“The stigma that we attach to addiction is what really holds us back,” he said. “The stigma of addiction kills people. It forces people to suffer in secret. It discourages us from seeking help. It contributes to criminal behavior. It results in imprisonment of thousands of people.”
“Combined with racism, poverty and other forms of discrimination, it causes a vast overrepresentation of people of color,” he continued. “Ultimately, it suppresses adequate government funding for prevention and treatment. It’s time to start treating addiction as a disease.”
The panelists emphasized that comprehensive solutions would require support and cooperation from many different sources.
“It has been made screamingly obvious to me that the approach our society has chosen to take to respond to the problems of addiction and black market narcotics trafficking cannot and will not ever be solved by solely a law enforcement support, and frankly it’s unfair to put that burden on law enforcement for all the years we did,” said Gwen Wilkinson, former district attorney and current interim coordinator of The Ithaca Plan.
Wilkinson said criminalizing and marginalizing those suffering from drug addiction, instead of treating them as patients, has made the problem worse.
“There has been a health-based, humane approach to addiction implemented in our country before,” she said. “But for a lot reasons … we became a society that outcast the addicts and demonized them and marginalized them. We took people whose lives were in distress and compounded that distress by orders of magnitude.”
Many panelists encouraged the use of Narcan, an FDA-approved drug that reverses an overdose in seconds.
“To do some myth-busting here, Narcan does not enable people who are addicted to drugs,” Celentano said. “It is not a pleasurable experience to come back from an overdose. It is painful and uncomfortable. A dead person has a 0 percent chance of recovery, so Narcan is pro-recovery.”
At the end of the event, a training session was held to teach audience members how to use Narcan so that they can potentially save the lives of those around them in the future.
“If you do it appropriately and you do it with knowledge of what you’re doing and you do it early enough, this is going to be hard for people who have lost someone, it’s not a huge thing, it’s an easy procedure,” said Will Fox, a paramedic for Bangs Ambulance.
In addition, many panelists advocated for supervised injection sites, which provide a safe area for people to use drugs. According to William Klepak, the medical director of the Tompkins County Public Health Department, these facilities serve some of the most disadvantaged parts of the population.
“I’ve striven to review much of the global literature on supervised injection facilities,” he said. “They are sanctioned, supervised facilities adopting a harm reduction model.”
Michelle McElroy, deputy executive director of the Southern Tier AIDS Program, discussed an injection site in Vancouver as an example of an effective model. The facility, which has been open for a decade, has never had a fatal overdose on-site, she said.
“By building trust with people and giving them a safe space to come to, you then have the opportunity to provide them with education and information about alternatives,” she said.
Representatives from the Ithaca Police Department also discussed plans for the implementation of a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in the near future. This program would foster collaboration between law enforcement and social services to help provide addicts with the resources they need instead of criminalizing them.
“A lot of times, we don’t have a lot of things to offer,” Lt. Jake Young said. “We’re responding, we’re dealing with an overdose, but we don’t really have a direct link or connection with services for people, so we’re essentially getting them medical help and wishing them well … and that’s about as far as we’re able to take it. I think the LEAD Program will be important for us to be able to get some people some initial services.”
For many in Ithaca, this issue of overdose hits very close to home, and audience members shared stories about loved ones they had lost due to addiction during a short memorial after the main presentations and panel discussions.
“A lot of people are dying in a way that is historic,” Celentano said. “But the good news is that overdose is completely preventable. We know how to save lives, and all we have to do is decide to do it.”