COLUMBUS, OHIO — As Ohioans confronted coronavirus and many sheltered-in-place this past spring, the state recorded more than 500 drug overdose deaths in the month of May – the deadliest month Ohio has ever seen. In the next three months, President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden went on to spend nearly $5 million in TV ads asking Ohioans for their support.
Despite their focus on our state’s electoral clout, the drug overdose crisis has gone largely unaddressed. It’s clear that Ohioans are suffering. As Biden and Trump ask for our votes, we’re asking them to commit to us.
Many are quick to attribute the increase in overdose fatalities this year solely to the pandemic. That’s the easy hypothesis. In Franklin County alone, home to Columbus, the coroner stated that overdose fatalities increased about 73 percent during the first six months of 2020. Preliminary data on drug overdose deaths over the summer months are expected to be equally as deadly.
We know it’s much more than statistics – it’s a systematic issue. The largest drivers of the current overdose crisis are criminalization, racism, bad drug policy, and lack of resources.
Last year about about 72,000 people died of a fatal overdose across the United States and about 4,000 of those deaths were Ohioans. What will the 2020 slate of candidates do about that?
With the election here, it’s not enough to receive another vague plan or memo on the overdose crisis from these candidates. We need a public show of support for people who use drugs and the harm reduction leaders who’ve devoted their lives to saving lives. We need a true commitment and concrete plan about meeting with front line workers, who have been doing their best to stem the tide with little access to resources or respect. We also need public officials to meet with people who use drugs, because we need elected officials to prove they care about the lives of drug users.
We see suffering in our families, in our prisons, and on our streets. And we see morgues filling up with loved ones lost to overdoses in too many communities — meanwhile we know that at least some of these deaths were preventable, a grief that is sometimes too heavy to bear.
We need our political leaders to invest wholly in harm reduction, a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at minimizing the negative health, social, and legal impacts associated with drug use and drug laws. This practice focuses on supporting holistic, positive change, and supporting people without judgement, coercion, discrimination, or requiring them to stop using drugs as a precondition of our support.
Simply put: the glaring drug overdose crisis demands that we meet people where they are and support them in keeping themselves as safe, healthy, and connected as possible. Without the condition of their sobriety.
Grassroots harm reduction leaders and people who use drugs know what works to save lives, but those in power are not listening. We need elected officials to prove they value the lives of people who use substances of one kind or another by ending the failed war on drugs. We need them to resurrect our communities by finally listening to the people on the ground who have been tirelessly working to curb overdoses. If our leaders, if our president, does not act quickly and boldly, our harm reduction leaders may not be here much longer to learn from.
Those of us on the ever-expanding front lines of harm reduction understand that to truly reduce drug overdoses we must address the systemic societal harms that keep trickling down into people’s lives. We must shift power and resources to those who are most in need and who know the most from lived experience.
People who use drugs are the leaders of our work to end overdose — we cannot continue to criminalize and villainize them. Instead, we have to listen and learn from them. Ohio’s historic highs in overdoses this year demand action from our elected officials, those on the campaign trail, those who sit in our state legislature, those who sit in our Congress, those who occupy the White House, etc.
We must all step up and get involved, because this is our society; our communities. But the buck stops with elected leaders. And up until now, their inaction has needlessly cost countless lives.