A few weeks ago Andrea, my business partner and friend, called me early in the morning and said, “we’ve lost another one.” I felt the familiar chill enter my body as I prepared myself for the emotional blow. “My friend died from an overdose,” she whispered. We embraced a moment of silence and she continued, “She was a single mom who struggled with her heroin use on-and-off for over a decade. She was loved, and I am going to miss her.” Her voice shook and her deep hurt could be felt over the phone.
This phone call was not unique, and in 2018, more than 60,000 Americans received a similar tragic phone call. So many Oklahomans have lost family members, friends, and loved ones to overdoses, Hepatitis C, and HIV. Last year, Andrea and I agreed that we were tired of watching loved ones die preventable deaths, so we channeled our sadness, anger, and love into our work at the Oklahoma Harm Reduction Alliance. OKHRA was officially formed in 2020 with the goal of deploying evidence-based harm reduction strategies that could have prevented the loss of this beloved single mother and many others. We are passionate about decreasing overdose rates in Oklahoma. Senate Bill 511, which was signed into law by Gov. Stitt, creates pathways to decrease preventable overdose deaths while supporting Oklahomans with substance use disorders.
Harm reduction services save lives
Between 1999 and 2016, more than 10,000 Oklahomans died from a drug overdose. In 2019, Oklahoma maintained the highest rate of Hepatitis C infections and deaths in the nation with an estimated 1,820 of every 100,000 Oklahomans infected. Far too many Oklahomans are dying of preventable diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, and far too many Oklahomans are dying of overdoses. SB 511, authored by Rep. Carol Bush and Sen. John Montgomery, is a significant step towards reducing the criminalization of addiction and improving the well-being of families and communities. SB 511 allows medical practitioners, law enforcement, Tribes, and registered social service entities to administer harm reduction syringe service programs with careful oversight by the State Department of Health. SB 511 creates an opportunity for these organizations to work with the Health Department to expand access to harm reduction services in Oklahoma.
Harm reduction services include access to sterile syringes, harm reduction education, and Naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. Under current law, people who use drugs are at increased risk of overdose and increased risk of contracting Hepatitis C, HIV, and other communicable diseases because many Oklahomans do not have access to these life saving resources. In 2018, nearly 10 percent of the 37,968 new HIV diagnoses in the nation were attributed to the lack of sterile syringes for people who inject drugs.
In my previous job as a Hepatitis C case manager, I saw clients who were formerly incarcerated, former injection drug users, uninsured, and desperate for Hepatitis C treatment. These issues have a tremendous impact on Oklahomans with justice involvement. Twelve percent of the incarcerated people in Oklahoma are living with Hepatitis C, and Oklahoma still has one of the highest rates of infection for the virus that causes Hepatitis C in the nation. However, there is only one program for uninsured people living with Hepatitis C in the entire state.
SB 511 applies evidence-based solutions
There is hope in sight for better drug policy in Oklahoma. SB 511 creates a legal framework for harm reduction programs in Oklahoma for the first time in the state’s history. When people utilize syringe service/harm reduction programs, their chances of contracting HIV and Hep C is reduced by 50 percent. Additionally, people who use harm reduction programs are three times as likely to quit injecting and five times more likely to go to treatment.
Harm reduction programs also help protect police officers and emergency responders. These programs have a proven record of improving public safety. Harm reduction programs reduce needle stick injuries to law enforcement and first responders by 66 percent, and studies show that they can reduce burglary and assault arrests by 10 percent.
Andrea and I have worked together in the harm reduction community for nearly two years and we have witnessed the power of person-centered harm reduction programs first-hand. The OKHRA’s Naloxone program has helped reverse nearly 200 overdoses and has also improved access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which helps reduce cravings for opioid medications for people who struggle with opioid-related substance use disorder. These medications, in combination with psychotherapy, bring a much needed person-centered approach to addiction therapy.
Most importantly, OKHRA has created meaningful relationships with people who use drugs, sex workers, and people experiencing homelessness, which provides opportunities for more individuals to access these life-saving services. Now that SB 511 is law, there will be opportunities for other harm reduction programs to thrive with oversight and support from the Health Department and the non-profit community. Harm reduction programs are evidenced-based and have proven to be a valuable tool in fighting HIV, Hepatitis C, and reducing the tragic number of drug overdoses in Oklahoma. SB 511 will reduce the harms of injection drug use in communities, protect first responders, and connect more Oklahomans to recovery services.
If you are interested in getting involved with OKHRA’s advocacy movement for people who use drugs, please follow us on Facebook and Instagram @ OKHRA. You can also request to be in the SHOTS/OKHRA volunteer crew on “Facebook Groups” for more detailed information about supporting harm reduction in Oklahoma. Finally, we would like to encourage readers to call your legislators regularly about topics you are interested in. Share stories you are comfortable sharing to let lawmakers know you care about Oklahoma, people who are incarcerated, and people who use drugs. Find your legislator here: www.oklegislature.gov/FindMyLegislature.aspx
Hailey Ferguson is a Master’s level social worker and a community organizer with vast experience collaborating with communities and organizations. Ms. Ferguson created Oklahoma’s first intensive case management program for uninsured Oklahomans with Hepatitis C, including an education program at David L Moss Criminal Justice Center. Ms. Ferguson is also the co-creator of Joyful Movement, North Tulsa and she is the Director of Programs and Development at the Oklahoma Harm Reduction Alliance. She is a passionate harm reductionist, content creator, writer, and community builder.
This post was written in collaboration with Andrea Haddox, who is the current Executive Director of the Oklahoma Harm Reduction Alliance (OKHRA) and a cofounder of SHOTS Tulsa, the only syringe services program in Oklahoma. Andrea’s passion for harm reduction and meeting people where they are is abundantly clear when you look at the work she does.