Preliminary 2017 drug overdose numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are shocking. In one year, more than 72,000 people died from overdoses in the U.S., a 10-percent rise over 2016. National efforts to address the fatalities — all of which are preventable — are hampered by stigma, the forced removal of phrases like “evidence-based” and “science-based” from the CDC, and the Trump administration’s commitment to jailing people who use drugs instead of treating the root causes behind their choices.
San Francisco, however, has waged a fierce and increasingly successful battle against the fatal effects of opiate overdoses. On Friday, that community — drug users, harm-reduction workers, and health professionals — gather for Overdose Awareness Day, held in the Tenderloin National Forest. It’s an event to remember the lives lost, yes, but also to remember all those who have been saved.
Leading the charge is the DOPE Project, a subset of the Harm Reduction Coalition that has been getting Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal drug, into the hands of volunteers for more than a decade. When someone overdoses from methamphetamine, heroin, or the increasingly present fentanyl, their breathing slows and eventually stops. Narcan is an effective method for blocking opiate receptors in the brain, essentially sobering someone up fast and saving their life. It’s a simple drug, which adds to its effectiveness, and it can be administered by non-medical professionals. Anyone who goes through a 10-minute training can subsequently stop someone from overdosing.
Harm-reduction workers have become skilled at distributing Narcan. Since 2003, the DOPE Project and its partners have trained 11,667 people to administer it, and they’ve issued 14,141 refills. From the fall of 2003 to June 2018, the DOPE Project says people reported 5,149 overdose reversals.
The power of such efforts becomes clear when looking at San Francisco’s overdose death data. In 2017, a little more than a hundred people died from overdoses, but that same year 1,247 community-dispensed Narcan overdose reversals took place — more than three a day, on average. If we didn’t have Narcan and a massive effort behind it, hundreds more people could have died on our streets.
And, in the past year local bars have also stepped up to the plate. St. Mary’s Pub in Bernal Heights now carries it, as does SoMa queer bar The Stud, which recently had its first overdose-reversal.
So while Overdose Awareness Day’s name sounds depressing, it recognizes real efforts that have helped people on San Francisco’s streets. Each year at the event, hundreds of cut-out paper figures — each representing five overdose reversals — are added to a long colorful installation, providing people with a physical reminder of the lives saved.
This year, there’s something else to celebrate. The California legislature finally approved Safe Consumption Sites — where people can use drugs safely and access harm-reduction services — last week. While none have opened in San Francisco yet, the spaces will someday provide San Franciscans who use drugs with one more safe resource: a place to connect with medical care, and a staff trained to spot and reverse an overdose. It’s a step toward recognizing the positive impacts of harm reduction, the effectiveness of Narcan, and the de-stigmatization of drug use. If we stay on this track, the city might one day get its annual fatal overdose rate to zero.
Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
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Overdose Awareness Day, Friday, Aug. 31, 1-3 p.m., in the Tenderloin National Forest, 501 Ellis St., overdoseday.com