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COVID, drugs, jails, racism and…hope? Five takeaways from our current overdose crisis

It is hard to remember that just eight months ago, almost no one had ever heard of COVID-19. Now it has changed the world as we know it. Media coverage is dominated by COVID-19 news, from the heartbreaking 170,000 lives lost in the United States, to the tens of millions of jobs that have disappeared. Most schools around the country have shut down and millions of people are experiencing anxiety and depression in unprecedented ways.

I have dedicated the last 20 years of my life to ending the war on drugs. Here are five takeaways on how COVID is impacting drug use, harm reduction services, mass incarceration and how society should treat people who use drugs both during and post the pandemic.

The overdose crisis hasn’t gone away; in fact, it seems to be accelerating.

Last year alone we lost 72,000 lives to overdose and, pre-COVID, overdose was the leading cause of death for people under 50.

Since the start of COVID, we expected drug use to go up. Public health experts and treatment providers have been warning that we will likely see even more people die from an overdose because of COVID.

Early data suggests the predictions were right: Drug deaths have risen an average of 13% so far this year over last year, according to mortality data collected by The New York Times, covering 40% of the U.S. population. Our overdose crisis was already contributing to “deaths of despair,” and it is clear that despair is only growing during COVID.

Harm reduction is more crucial and urgent than ever.

While doctors and nurses have appropriately been called heroes, we should also shower love and appreciation on harm reduction providers. Harm reductionists are also on the front lines and in the streets helping some of our most vulnerable, from people who use drugs to the homeless.

Harm reduction advocates are adapting to the crisis and finding new ways to get lifesaving items to people who use drugs. NEXT Naloxone is mailing naloxone, a medication that can rapidly reverse opioid overdoses, and syringes to people during the COVID crisis. We also see some progress from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which are relaxing federal restrictions on prescribing and dispensing opioid treatment medications, buprenorphine and methadone.

Prisons and jails remain dangerous hotbeds of coronavirus filled with people who suffer from addiction, mostly Black and Brown.

It is shameful that America leads the world in incarcerating its citizens. Despite being just 4% of the world population, we have 22% of the people behind bars. While drug use doesn’t discriminate, our drug polices do. Despite similar rates of drug use and sales across race, Blacks and Latinos are targeted and arrested at grossly disproportionate rates.

And now with COVID, a minor prison sentence can be a death sentence. Across the United States, prisons and jails have become hot spots for COVID-19. So far more than 160,000 incarcerated people and staff have tested positive for COVID and more than 1,000 people have died.

We need states to step up and allow people who don’t need to be behind bars to come home. The other critical step is ensuring we have thoughtful reentry programs and strategies, to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and overdose deaths among those released.

We are increasingly awake to the discriminatory impact of policing and drug policies.

Large segments of our society expressed rage and grief at the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, and the continued legacy of police violence against Black people in the United States. They have powerfully demanded reforms to policing and funding priorities.

As part of that call to action, cities around the country are rethinking policing and who is best equipped to address homelessness, mental health and drug use. Harm reduction policies that put health decisions into the hands of drug users and support health professionals have an important role to play in a future where drug use is treated as a health issue, not a moral failing.

Another world is possible.

The pandemic has shone a light on so many of the unacceptable problems in our society, from the racial disparities in access to health care, our criminal justice system, economic insecurity and beyond.

We need to reimagine everything, including how our society treats people who use drugs. Let’s understand why people use drugs in the first place, have more compassion and less judgmentm and offer help without coercion. We need to end the racism and disparities when it comes to drug enforcement and criminalization.

Let’s work toward a world where there are fewer overdose deaths, and let’s be guided by the vision of a future where a just and kind society empowers people to live long and fulfilled lives, and self-medicating is not needed in the first place.

Newman is communication director for the Overdose Prevention Program at Vital Strategies.

This piece was originally published in the Daily News and can be found here