Advocating for Overdose Prevention Sites

Many of our passionate advocates after giving testimony in support of the authorization of Overdose Prevention Sites in Maryland

This week marks my 4-year anniversary of a short-lived adventure as Baltimore City Health Department’s (BCHD) Director of Overdose Prevention and Response. In this role, I reported directly to the then newly-appointed health commissioner Dr. Leana Wen and was responsible for overseeing her efforts to end the overdose crisis in Baltimore City. I lasted four months at that job. Maybe it was the pressure to hold all of that responsibility for a new political figure. Or because my mental health was threatened by having to be “on” 24/7. Or the fact that Freddie Gray was murdered by police officers while I was sitting in rooms being asked to “work nice” with this same police department. It was the most challenging professional experience of my life.

A tipping point was when I realized that while I was sitting in a position of (potential) power within BCHD, I was unable to publicly endorse brilliant concepts like Overdose Prevention Sites (OPS) that were being presented for the first time in the 2015 Maryland General Assembly. My voice felt more restricted than I could bear. I needed to find a new home where I could freely advocate for innovative ideas.

Thankfully, four years later, I am now in a position fueled by people power; I am surrounded by harm reductionists unabashedly pushing for life-saving tools to increase safety and justice for people who use drugs and their loved ones. People with the passion, skills and freedom to open the hearts and minds of politicians.  

On Valentine’s Day this year, 25 harm reduction advocates from around the state convened in Annapolis to testify in support of OPS (legislatively known as HB139/SB135 Overdose and Infectious Disease Prevention Programs). HB139/SB135 would approve a four year pilot program with up to six sites to be authorized in the state, with 2 per urban, suburban, and rural areas. If authorized, this legislation would not provide funding for these sites but local jurisdictions will have the power in determining where they end up. The goal of this process is to have sites where they are both wanted and needed. These sites are needed in Baltimore City and we let them know on February 14, 2019.

Our day at the Maryland General Assembly began with a powerful bill introduction in the House Health and Government Operations (HGO) Committee from bill sponsor and committee vice-chair, Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk. An inspiring advocate,  Delegate Pena-Melnyk reminded legislators to meet the issue with compassion, like they would any piece of legislation that strives to improve care for people in need. Dr. Susan Sherman of the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health provided concrete data about the benefits of OPS, and powerfully handled myriad questions from the legislators. Additionally, Amos Irwin gave insight into how these spaces could save the state money through a robust cost-benefit analysis of the potential impact of creating just one OPS in Baltimore City.

While persuasive, these data would not have registered as deeply without the following speakers who vulnerably poured out personal stories that demand the need for action to end overdose: people who formerly and currently use(d) drugs; family members and friends of those lost; as well as nurses, doctors, and others who have witnessed unnecessary suffering due to oppressive drug policy. Everyone showed courage in facing legislative committees in both the House and the Senate’s austere hearing rooms. No matter the story that was told, all testimony echoed the same point: we will not see the thriving communities we all deserve unless we start treating people who use drugs, especially those most targeted by the War on Drugs, with humanity. While legislators vocalized some hesitation due to anticipated political pushback, these bills faced no opposing testimony whatsoever.

It was a powerful day, but the work is not over. While every bill gets a hearing, not every bill gets a vote.

Contact your representatives about supporting HB139/SB135 today! At this point, Senate Finance Committee Chair Delores Kelley and House HGO Committee Chair Shane Pendergrass have the power to move these life-saving bills forward. Please prioritize your outreach to committee chairs Kelley and Pendergrass, as well as any folks listed below who represent you. Make the calls and emails today!

Rajani Gudlavalleti, community organizing coordinator,
with assistance from Owen O’Keefe, 2019 policy advocacy intern 

Maryland Senate: Finance Committee

Maryland House of Delegates: HGO Committee

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