As a minister who spends her days working to address the overdose crisis, I see the ways we as a state are complicit in this crisis. We have not yet made life-saving tools easily accessible. This is why our death rate is so high.
In America, drug policy has always been deeply racialized and racist. In fact, the first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants who were seen as labor competition for white men as railroads were being built in the West. Some convey this historical insecurity when they assert that China is responsible for the thousands of Ohioans that have lost their lives to overdose.
Faith leaders have seen this crisis up close. We have buried far too many members of our congregations, and we have lost too many members of our own families. We know we can do more to ease the grief and suffering of God's people, which is all people, and we will not be distracted by racist, xenophobic rhetoric.
Our elected officials have continued to struggle to enact solutions. On this point we agree. However, this is not due to an international threat but simply because legislators have refused to listen to those most directly impacted and implement common-sense, life-saving policies. If they listened they would clearly hear what communities need: resources like low-threshold community distribution of naloxone, robust good Samaritan legislation, fentanyl testing strips, syringe access sites, safer consumption spaces and accurate hysteria-free information about drugs and drug use.
Yes, the fentanyl and carfentanil that have shown up in Ohio's drug supply have led to an increased number of overdoses. But an overdose does not have to be fatal. Almost any witnessed opiate overdose is reversible if people have the proper tools. Ohio has chosen not to make those tools widely accessible and that is why we have seen such a drastic spike in overdose deaths.
Ohio is the only state that still lists naloxone, a medication capable of reversing an opiate overdose, as a dangerous drug. This requires one to obtain a tedious and costly license in order to distribute it, severely limiting the community distribution that can reach people who might witness an overdose.
Additionally, Ohio's good Samaritan law, which is meant to protect those possessing minor amounts of drugs or paraphernalia from prosecution if they call for help when someone overdoses, is dangerously limited. The current law excludes those who need it most: those who are on parole or probation. Worse, it caps one's ability to receive immunity. One is able to call for help when witnessing an overdose only two times before no longer being covered by this legislation. I know people who respond to more than two overdoses in their community in a day.
This is why we have the second-highest overdose death rate in the country. Ohioans do not use drugs more than people in other states, and we are not uniquely targeted by fentanyl; we simply aren't adequately equipping people with the tools they need to respond. To indicate otherwise is racially biased, irresponsible and deadly.
We will not find a supply side solution to this crisis. And we will not solve this crisis with increased criminalization when in fact criminalization caused this crisis. Fentanyl has become more widespread because it is cheaper and less risky to manufacture. While heroin requires large fields and bulky shipments, fentanyl can be manufactured in a lab and sold in smaller quantities, putting people at much less criminal risk. When we criminalize drugs we push them underground and make them more dangerous. People are compelled to create and purchase stronger synthetic drugs as a means to avoid jail.
As a minister, I see that Ohioans are tired of being used as political pawns while legislators allow them to continue to die preventable deaths. We are clear on who the threat is. We aren't in danger because of China, Mexico or migrants from Central America. Our own legislators are remaining idle or doing things that ignore what we need, and people are dying.
Blyth Barnow of Pickerington is Harm Reduction Faith coordinator of Faith in Public Life.
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