By Abby Goodnough, The New York Times
It was the first day the drop-in centre in a residential neighbourhood here had opened its doors since the coronavirus forced them shut in the spring of 2020. “I’m so glad you all are open again,” the man, whose first name is Jordan, told a volunteer who handed him a full paper bag while heavy metal music riffed over a speaker in the background. He asked for extra naloxone for friends in his rural county, an hour away, where he said it had been scarce throughout the pandemic.
Overdose deaths rose by nearly 30% over the 12-month period that ended in November, to more than 90,000, according to preliminary federal data released this month — suggesting 2020 blew past recent records for such deaths. The staggering increase during the pandemic has many contributing factors, including widespread job loss and eviction; diminished access to addiction treatment and medical care; and an illegal drug supply that became even more dangerous after the country essentially shut down.
But the forced isolation for people struggling with addiction and other mental health issues may be one of the biggest. Now, with the nation reopening, the Biden administration is throwing support behind the contentious approach that the centre here takes, known as harm reduction. Instead of helping drug users achieve abstinence, the chief goal is to reduce their risk of dying or acquiring infectious diseases such as HIV by giving them sterile equipment, tools to check their drugs for fentanyl and other lethal substances, or even just a safe space to nap.
Such programmes have long come under attack for enabling drug use, but President Joe Biden has made expanding harm-reduction efforts one of his drug-policy priorities — the first president to do so. The American Rescue Act includes $30 million specifically for evidence-based harm-reduction services, the first time Congress has appropriated funds specifically for that purpose. The funding, while modest, is a victory for the programs, both symbolically and practically, as they often run on shoestring budgets.