Nesbitt School of Pharmacy hosts Opioid Advocacy Forum


The Beacon/Steffen Horwath

Devin Reaves explains failed policies to combat the opioid epidemic.

On Nov. 14, the Nesbitt School of Pharmacy hosted Devin Reaves, the director of the PA Harm Reduction Coalition (PAHRC), for an Opioid Advocacy Forum.

The mission of PAHRC is “to promote the health, dignity, and human rights of individuals who use drugs and communities impacted by drug use.”

Reaves has been living in recovery since 2007. He is a community organizer and a passionate grassroots advocacy leader. He has worked on the expansion of access to lifesaving medication, implantation of policies and the development of youth-oriented systems for several years.

He announced that PAHRC is partnering with the Wilkes University student chapter of the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association (PPA).

Reaves passed the forum discussion over to Ben Levanduski, a harm reduction advocate, to speak about the opioid epidemic.

“When we talk about the opioid epidemic, there are a few common narratives that get passed around a lot. One that I hear a lot is that there was an overprescribing of prescription drugs and that people switched to heroin when actions were taken to clamp down on that,” he said. “There is some truth to that, but one of the limitations to that is that it focuses on a certain drug user. It focuses on the idealized drug user in our mind, usually white, suburban, middle class. It frames them as apart from and different from other drug users, and we hope to reconsider that by looking at some of the trends.”

One point he stressed is that the problem is a polysubstance one. In particular, one set of data displayed the number of drug-related overdose deaths by drugs present in Pennsylvania.

The data showcased that the largest was 3,629 deaths involving the presence of fentanyl, but it also showed that must of those overdoses were polysubstance, meaning more than just fentanyl was present.

Levanduski also discussed communicable diseases such as HIV and HVC, which both saw an increase of diagnosis showing that they were contracted through injection.

He also pointed out that Luzerne County was the 38th most vulnerable county to being at risk of outbreaks of HIV and HCV in 2016.

Levanduski passed the forum back over to Reaves, who spoke about solutions to help people using drugs or attempting to recover from drug use. Many of these solutions were harm reduction services such as syringe service programs (SSPs), fentanyl test strips and Law Force Assisted Diversion (LEAD).

“Harm reduction services work. They are effective and backed by a huge amount of data,” explained Reaves. “People who use services at SSPs are five times more likely to enter treatment. They are incredibly cost-effective – while a single syringe costs about $0.07, treatment for Hepatitis C and HIV across a lifetime is tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

He continued, “Prevention of a single case of HCV or HIV economically justifies the entire operating budget of an SSP. SSPs lead to decreased accidental needle sticks of law enforcement officers.”

Options like LEAD treat people who “use drugs like people, not like criminals.” Reaves stressed that what people with drug use problems need are to be helped the whole way through the recovery process, to be referred to in ways that will not make them feel othered. This involves avoiding terms like drug addicts or drug users and to not be thrown into jail.

“Harm reduction is practical and effective. Our current system of criminalizing drugs, stigmatizing drug use and restricting access to healthcare is killing people. The harm reduction movement is closely aligned with many other movements – universal access to health care, universal access to housing, individual rights, dismantling systems of oppression and racism, ending mass incarceration, food justice/insecurity and more.”

Reaves continued, “People that support other movements need to be advocates for harm reduction as well. I would also note that advocacy is a necessary part of our society, and it can look different for everyone. Anyone interested in being an advocate in any manner, and in the manner best fit for them, should connect with us on social media and reach out for tools and strategies.”

The remainder of the forum was spent partaking in activities such as dialogue training to help convince others that harm reduction works. Another focus was to not “other” those who use drugs, but instead help them through their recovery process or make safe choices when using drugs.

Those interested in becoming an advocate or learning more about the topics discussed throughout the forum can follow the PA Harm Reduction Coalition on Instagram @paharmreduction, on Twitter @PAHarmReduction or Facebook at Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition.