Recovery, medical, and public health advocates started the Substance Abuse and Overdose Prevention Political Action Committee (SAOP PAC). The PAC focuses on public health and criminal justice reform issues as they relate to substance use and overdose prevention. The kick off event was held at Layali Restaurant in downtown Providence.
The PAC is co-chaired by Annajane Yolken, Haley McKee and Lisa Peterson.
“As everyone knows, we’re in the middle of an overdose crisis in our state and in our country,” said Yolken, addressing the packed room. “Last year in Rhode Island, 323 people died from this epidemic. It’s clear that we need better approaches. We need [approaches] that are based in evidence to keep our neighbors alive, to promote health and safety, and to uphold human dignity. It’s also clear that the war on drugs, which has used an incarceration based method, has not worked. It’s ripped families apart and it’s disproportionately impacted poor communities and communities of color. We cannot keep going down that path.
“We found ourselves at the State House last year advocating for good bills, trying to stop bad bills, and we were really frustrated with the folks at the State House who wouldn’t listen to the experts – wouldn’t listen to people who had experience with substance use disorder – who were medical professionals and public health professionals – people who had been incarcerated for this problem before.
“And we were also frustrated with the people who were more concerned about the politics of the situation rather than creating policies that keep our neighbors alive,” continued Yolken. “So we came together to create this political action committee… which is an organization that can make bolder, more substantial political moves than any of our specific non-profit organizations could. To push for better legislation and better policies, to really try new directions to promote health and safety in Rhode Island.”
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“I have a personal stake in this game,” said Representative Moira Walsh (Democrat, District 3, Providence). “As many of you know, my older brother has been a heroine addict for most of my adult life. And I have to say this at every event: Addicts are people too. They’re our neighbors, they’re our friends, there’s no one specific group of people that struggles with addiction. It’s not just poor people. It’s not just ignorant people. It’s not just people who are poorly educated.
“It’s oftentimes people who have trusted their medical professionals to give them the best and soundest advice, and were led astray…
“An addict is not a criminal, an addict is a victim themselves. And laws like the draconian Kristen’s Law… are really steps moving backwards…”
“Said very simply, our society’s main approach to the disease of addiction is through the criminal justice system,” said Dr Jody Rich, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and expert advisor to Governor Gina Raimondo‘s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force. “We spend a lot of money, a lot of resources, and quite frankly, it does not work.”
“Every one of us has been touched by the overdose crisis,” said Representative Aaron Regunberg (Democrat, District 4, Providence), who is running for Lieutenant Governor. “We need urgent action to save lives. That means policy-makers need to listen to experts, public health professionals, and those directly affected by this crisis. I was proud to work with members of SAOP this session to make life-saving fentanyl strips available in our communities. I’m excited to join their round table Thursday and look forward to our work preventing needless tragedies in the year ahead.”
“The evidence based approach, these reports coming from these epidemiologists and the adverse effects of mass incarceration,” said recovery advocate Haley McKee. “When these hit our legislator’s desks, these should be taken with as much seriousness as a budget report. These are real numbers. These are facts and statistics. This is not something that somebody can go out and draw a judgement on. This is people’s lives.”
“We need to make it easier for people who are suffering to ask for help,” said Justine Caldwell, Democratic candidate for House District 30, East Greenwich. “and whether we like it or not, the laws that we pass have a huge impact on cultural values. So we need laws that help us to take care of each other, not laws that punish those among us who are reaching out for what is often literally a lifeline.”
Annajane Yolken wrapped up the speaking portion of the evening.
You can give to the PAC here: https://secure.actblue.com/donate/saoppac
Politicians from across the political spectrum attended, including State Senator James Seveney (Democrat, District 11, Bristol, Portsmouth) and State Representatives Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (Democrat, District 5, Providence), Scott Slater (Democrat, District 10, Providence), David Bennett (Democrat, District 20, Warwick), Michael Chippendale (Republican, District 40, Coventry, Foster Glocester) and Susan Donovan (Democrat, District 69, Bristol). Also in attendance were Jonathan Vallecilla, Democratic candidate for House District 58, Pawtucket, Rebecca Kislak, Democratic candidate for House District 4, Providence and Peter Neronha, Democratic candidate for Rhode Island Attorney General.
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