Wanna hear a crazy statistic? There were almost four times as many people who died of drug overdoses in San Francisco in 2020 than there were people who died of COVID. That’s wild, right? According to a Dec. 21 article in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, a record 621 people died from ODing in 2020 while 173 died from the virus. A large part of the reason we’ve been so successful in the realm of COVID is because, as a community, San Franciscans have done a great job of listening to public health officials and following their instructions. Not only do we care about ourselves, we care about our neighbors as well. The idea is that, since COVID is a public health risk, if we work together and respect each other’s right to not get sick, we can beat it.
I’d like us to all to take the same approach when it comes to saving people dying from overdoses because, if four times as many people are dying from overdoses than from a highly deadly pandemic, this too is a public health risk. And it’s escalating. The 621 overdose deaths in 2020 is up from 441 in 2019, which was up 70% from 2018. These numbers are staggering.
Luckily, it’s very easy to save the life of someone who is overdosing on opioids, which is the main thing people are dying from because fentanyl has flooded the drug market. With a simple nasal spray of Narcan, you can literally save someone’s life and reverse what the overdose is doing to the body. People who use drugs and their community successfully reversed well over 3,400 overdoses in 2020 because they had Narcan and knew how to use it, according to the Drug Overdose Prevention & Education (DOPE) Project.
I’ll tell you about how and where to get free Narcan and training below, but before I go any further, though, I need to explain why this impacts you. I know right now people are reading this and thinking “This only happens to homeless people” or “I don’t do fentanyl so this doesn’t affect me” or “If you do drugs, this is your fault.”
I shouldn’t have to explain why caring about other people is important, even if they don’t live indoors. On top of that, far too many of us are only a few bad breaks and a couple missed paychecks from being homeless ourselves. We should want to see all our neighbors, no matter where they live, survive and thrive. And we should do our best to help them by having Narcan handy just in case.
The war on drugs fuels unpredictable and inconsistent drug markets, and those markets are accessed by more than just our houseless neighbors. I’ve personally known multiple people who died of accidental fentanyl overdoses in 2020 and there are a few others that I suspect were fentanyl overdoses though the cause of death was never released. That’s because as Kristen Marshall, the project manager of the DOPE Project, tells me, “White powders all look the same, drug markets are chaotic and mistakes happen.” Some people are buying drugs thinking they’re getting something like cocaine or MDMA (aka ecstasy or molly) and getting fentanyl instead.
Which means all of us should learn how to use Narcan and have some handy. Even if you only do blow on special occasions like New Year’s Eve, or you don’t actually do drugs, but your friends do molly sometimes, you should be prepared. When bars and clubs open back up, they should always have Narcan behind the bar, and if you live or work in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of homelessness, you should keep some in your bag in case you come across someone who is overdosing. Also, if you’re partying and using drugs, no matter how infrequently, you should order fentanyl testing strips from DanceSafe so that you can make sure the drugs you’re about to do aren’t actually fentanyl.
Unfortunately, the stigma around drugs and drug use is also feeding this epidemic and helping cause this spike in overdoses. Because our society has such a “Just say no!” attitude towards drugs, many of the people who are at high risk for possible drug overdoses haven’t been properly educated about how they can do them safely. Because look, people are gonna do drugs; sometimes it’s an escape. Sometimes it’s an addiction. Sometimes it’s just a lot of fun. Only teaching drug abstinence is about as effective as only teaching abstinence from sex. People are still gonna do it, they will just do it ignorantly. We all know there’s an opioid epidemic in this country; it’s time to start treating it like the public health emergency that it is.
Last week Kayla and I got some free Narcan and got trained on how to use it. Of course, the idea of learning to save a life is daunting, but I was surprised and impressed by how easy it is to do. I hope I’ve convinced at least some of you to get Narcan and learn how to use it. If so, you can go to the CBHS Pharmacy at 1380 Howard St. (at 10th Street) between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday (closed on holidays) to get a FREE nasal Narcan kit and training from one of the pharmacists there. Not only is it free, it’s also perfectly legal for lay people to carry and administer it because it’s impossible for you to harm someone with Narcan. For more information, you check out the DOPE Project’s website www.harmreduction.org/dope or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stuart Schuffman is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com and join his mailing list at http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. His column appears every other week. He is a guest columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.