Health Care

Advocates rally at state house in support of overdose prevention legislation

“The opposite of addiction is not recovery, it is not sobriety, it is connection,” said Ashley Perry, Program Manager at Project Weber/Renew. “Overdose prevention centers will give us one more connection to keep people alive so one day they can feel better.”
Photo for Advocates rally at state house in support of overdose prevention legislation

Published on June 24, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

Overdose prevention advocates gathered at the Rhode Island State House on Wednesday as legislators arrived for their 4pm floor session. They were there in support of policies that help people with substance use disorder and those in recovery, including legislation to create harm reduction centers and legislation to reclassify drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. The rally was organized by the Substance Use Policy, Education, and Recovery (SUPER) PAC, “a non-partisan organization that advocates for evidence-based policies that support the health, safety, and dignity of Rhode Islanders with substance use disorder.”

2020 was the deadliest year on record from overdose, with 384 people who died in Rhode Island. In response, advocates applauded legislative efforts to enact policies, such as harm reduction centers, that will save lives and allow people to find recovery. Haley McKee, who acted as emcee for the rally, announced that the safe injection facilities legislation (H5245) will pass this year, making Rhode Island “the first in the nation” to adopt a plan that has been shown to save lives around the world.

Attendees also celebrated other legislative victories. “I’m not going to lie, we’ve been pretty successful. We just defelonized simple drug possession last week,” said McKee. “We also decriminalized buprenorphine.” Buprenorphine is used by people in recovery, but its possession has resulted in as many as 300 people being arrested while attempting recovery.

At the heart of these legislative victories is an awareness of substance use disorder as a medical, rather than a criminal, issue. “If we’re embracing substance use disorder as a medical condition, we can no longer deny people while they’re in the midst of that medical condition, access to care,” said McKee. “And that’s what the heart of this bill is all about: Meeting people where they’re at.”

“The opposite of addiction is not recovery, it is not sobriety, it is connection,” said Ashley Perry, Program Manager at Project Weber/Renew. “Overdose prevention centers will give us one more connection to keep people alive so one day they can feel better.”

“There were a lot of friends and family members that died, and I thank God that I was the lucky one,” said Deborah Harris, a DARE Behind the Walls member. “It’s sad to think about but if there was a program back then, a facility where you could go and do your thing and be monitored, it would have stopped a lot of deaths, it would have stopped people from going to prison, losing their children, a lot of things…”

Tara Dorsey, a community activist and healthcare worker noted that in the early 20th century, safe injection houses were established for rich white people, but after the substance use issue became radicalized, it became criminalized.

“Known for their efficacy and life saving interventions, science has demonstrated that safe injection facilities are an unparalleled tool in the fight against the overdose crisis,” said overdose survivor Roxanne Newman. “No one who has ever used these facilities has ever died from a drug overdose.”

“It affected me personally back in 2014 when my partner Aaron overdosed, a fatal overdose experience,” said Anita Jacobson, a professor at the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy. The experience showed Jacobson how few services were available for people struggling with addiction. “If there had been a center like this, he would still be alive today.”

Representative John Edwards (Democrat, District 70, Tiverton) is the House sponsor of the bill:

“This year feels precipitous,” said Michelle McKenzie from the Brown University, School of Medicine. “It feels like we’re going to finally see movement away from a harmful drug war that has been plaguing our nation for decades.”

We are working on policy that really sees people as full humans, really works on addressing stigma, really addresses racial inequities,” said SUPER PAC co-chair Annajane Yolken.

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