The use of illicit drugs has and always will be a fact of this life. We all know people who have used and abused them, friends and family members who have struggled with addiction, and possibly we have even gone down that path ourselves.
With party culture existing as the sole, safest space for a lot of queer folks coming out over the generations, it feels as though it’s an inevitable part of this human experience. In fact, it’s rare, rather anomalous, to not have been touched by drug use and addiction in some way, shape, or form.
In Colorado, 1,111 people died from drug overdose in 2018; the opioid epidemic is beyond out of control, and yet the conflict in how to tackle an almost insurmountable problem creates hostility and a halting on even having the conversation.
August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day and aims to raise awareness about drug overdose and reducing the stigma of drug-related deaths. The Mile High city has also taken to naming this date each year, as Colorado Overdose Awareness Day and the Harm Reduction Action Center (HRAC), alongside Denver Health, are combining assets and rallying to bring attention and recognize those lives that have been lost.
“The last few years, we’ve raised a ruckus on the streets; people had signs, yelling all sorts of sh*t out there, and talking to folks, but we never really had a place to land,” said Lisa Raville, executive director of HRAC.
This year, after chatting with some folks at the Denver Health Center for Addiction Medicine, Raville decided a partnership with the healthcare facility would be a great opportunity to raise even more awareness of drug overdose and help reduce stigma.
A march will kick off from HRAC at 231 E Colfax at 2 p.m. and will conclude at the Rita Bass EMS Education Center on the Denver Health campus at 190 6th Avenue. Shortly after, a speaking program will be held with personal testimonies and the city’s plans on how to approach and address addiction and overdose.
A visual memorial will also be present as a way to acknowledge the grief felt by families and friends of those who have died or suffered permanent injury from drug overdose.
“Stimulant overdoses are up in the state of Colorado, and especially in Denver; those are meth, cocaine, and crack. A lot of people especially people who use stimulants don’t know that they can overdose on stimulants, That’s really important. We’re having those conversations.
Overdose Awareness Day spreads the message that the tragedy of overdose death is preventable.
“We need to keep people alive; we’re losing too many great people,” Raville said. “Since 1999 in the United States, we’ve lost 700,000 folks to drug overdose deaths, and many of those are preventable.
“Denver had 209 drug related deaths last year alone, and of that, 23 were public, meaning outside in alleys, parks, and business bathrooms. We can do better.”
HRAC is a provider of emergency, health, and human services to injection drug users. By providing proper syringe disposal, clean syringes, access to HIV/HCV testing, and additional classes and resources since 2002. The model of creating safe spaces and resources for the reported 5,000 injection drug users in the city of Denver helps reduce risk of overdose, misuse of needles, and can provide a crucial entry point for people to medical care, detox, rehabilitation, and mental health treatment.
In emphasizing these spaces as being safe and accessible for all, they take extra care and concern in making LGBTQ folks feel comfortable and welcome.
“We want to be the one safe space for the entire world [for] folks to talk realistically about their drug use,” said Raville. “As soon as people come in, we ask orientation on the intake, and we talk about how they want to identify in the space.”
HRAC also currently sees roughly 100 trans folks come though their doors, and as part of their services, they will provide 23 or 25 gauge syringes for those who may be self-administering underground hormone replacement and steroid injections.
“We want to make sure that they have access at our place, too, because if they don’t get access, they’ll share and reuse with each other. We want to make sure that we have those sizes available for folks to not only come in and access services, but also feel comfortable transitioning in our space,” she said.
Additionally, as part of the intake process, everyone is administered a set of rules that states any racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic remarks are unacceptable.
In a bleak world for LGBTQ folks when it comes to drug and alcohol resources, offering things as simple as gender-neutral restrooms, to affirming things like gender markers M/F/T/X options on intake forms, to finely specific needs like syringe size, HRAC is implementing and taking action in creating safe spaces for all.
Overdose Awareness Day is really about highlighting the hope that is available for those who use drugs, a hope in a healthy life regardless of present life circumstances. Raville knows that the misconceptions of drug users are vast and wide, and that partnering with Denver Health is even deemed controversial due to the stereotype that drug users simply don’t care.
“People who inject drugs and healthcare providers have a very tumultuous relationship,” she said. “A lot of healthcare providers say people don’t just don’t care about their health, but they actually do care. No one’s mandated to come to a syringe access program, so folks are being proactive about their health as soon as they walk in the door of a syringe access program.”
Denver Health chose not to comment on the partnership; however, putting aside any internal dialogue and discourse, Raville said that she has been very pleased in the collaboration.
“They just want this to be a really awesome awareness raising event, and also a safe space for people to mourn those that they’ve lost,” Raville said.