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Kentuckians show support for harm reduction to prevent drug overdoses

People stand together in downtown Louisville, holding signs with messages like "No more drug war" and "Treatment over incarceration."
Morgan Watkins
Louisville Public Media
People gathered in downtown Louisville last week for a rally for International Overdose Awareness Day. They held signs with messages like "No more drug war" and marched through the streets in honor of Kentuckians who have died from drug overdoses.

In Kentucky, many people are working to expand access to harm reduction services and calling for more action to stop overdoses.

National Recovery Month has been celebrated in September since 1989. It’s an opportunity to support people with substance use disorder and promote different paths to recovery.

The final day of August also serves as another important observance for people affected by addiction. It’s International Overdose Awareness Day. To mark that occasion, people rallied with the group VOCAL-KY in Louisville last week.

They marched downtown to honor Kentuckians lost to overdoses and to urge the city to do more to prevent future deaths. VOCAL-KY has a roadmap filled with recommendations.

At the rally, people wrote notes for loved ones they lost to an overdose. It was part of a community art project that spotlights the impact of the current crisis.

Mykiah Jones of Louisville wrote one for a friend who died almost a year ago.

“I’ve had a lot of people in my personal life fall short to overdoses,” she said. “I mean my mother, for example. One of my best friends. My brothers are fighting addiction right now. So it’s really close to home. And it’s the work that I do, so I wanted to be out here to support it.”

Jones has done social work with unhoused people.

“The work is there,” she said. “I’ve done outreach. I’ve been in the camps. I’ve handed out needles. I’ve handed out Narcan. It’s hard work, but it’s real work and there’s real people involved, so it makes it worth it.”

Giving people sterile syringes or providing Narcan, the brand name for the opioid overdose reversal medication naloxone, are examples of harm reduction.

After decades of work by community activists, the harm reduction movement is gaining momentum in Kentucky and across the U.S.

For example, public access to overdose reversal medications has gradually expanded. Starting this week, major retail stores will sell a Narcan nasal spray over the counter.

And earlier this year, the Kentucky Legislature decriminalized test strips that can detect synthetic opioids. People can protect themselves by using the test strips to check if a small batch of drugs contains fentanyl.

Research shows the tests are reliable, although a negative result doesn’t completely guarantee a batch is fentanyl-free.

VOCAL-KY and a Louisville-based nonprofit called People Advocating Recovery are two of a growing number of organizations that support harm reduction initiatives.

“All we’re talking about is the prevention of death. That’s what harm reduction is. Same way as wearing a seatbelt,” said Tara Moseley Hyde, People Advocating Recovery’s CEO.

Kentucky saw a roughly 5% decrease in overdose deaths in 2022 compared to 2021, state data show. But deaths remained higher than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

There are many paths to recovery for people with substance use disorder.

“Recovery is on a continuum,” Hyde said. “There isn’t a one-place destination that you try to reach. And for every person, it’s different.”

On Saturday, People Advocating Recovery will co-host the 17th annual Rally for Recovery. The family-friendly event runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., outside of the University of Louisville’s Swain Student Activities Center.

Hyde said there will be live music, face painting, free popcorn and more.

“The whole point of the day is just to celebrate, have fun, enjoy ourselves, bring together our community and showcase that recovery is possible,” she told LPM News.

Back at last week’s VOCAL-KY rally, Stacy Werner of Louisville carried a sign that showed photos of her son, Cody Merriman, and her brother, Chet Glasscock.

They both died from an overdose. Werner joined the rally to support them. She herself has been in recovery for 20 years.

Stacy Werner of Louisville wears a pink shirt that reads "Stop Heroin." She holds a sign that shows pictures of her son and brother.
Morgan Watkins
Louisville Public Media
Stacy Werner of Louisville joined last week's VOCAL-KY rally for International Overdose Awareness Day. Here, she holds a sign that shows photos of her son, Cody Merriman, and her brother, Chet Glasscock. They both died of drug overdoses, and she came to the rally to support them.

Her son passed away almost nine years ago, and Friday marks seven years since she lost her brother.

During the march downtown for overdose awareness, she said it felt like they were with her the whole time.

“Something pushed me to come today,” she said last week. “My voice has been strong, and I’ve been strong. And I’m just grateful that they have little groups like this because it does help.”

Morgan is LPM's health & environment reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.

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