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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Must-Have Gear for Going Out This Summer? Narcan!

Last year, as she scrolled through Instagram, Morgan Godvin took a bold swing. The Portland-based editor and harm-reduction activist direct-messaged the indie rap act Atmosphere, asking to pass out the opioid overdose-reversing medication naloxone on their upcoming tour. She wasn’t necessarily expecting a response to her DM. It was a wild request. But to Godvin’s surprise, not only did Atmosphere respond, they enthusiastically agreed.

Godvin sprang into action. With the help of a network of volunteers, she gave away naloxone (often referred to by its brand name, Narcan) at Atmosphere’s shows across the country. It wasn’t an easy task, as naloxone is often difficult and expensive to source, and each state has its own rules regarding its distribution. But the efforts were quickly and obviously fruitful. “At the show in Albuquerque, we literally saved people's lives,” Godvin says. “The harm reductionists there reversed two overdoses: one during the show, one in the parking lot after.”

Godvin’s organization, Beats Overdose, is gearing up for another summer tour. Not a moment too soon: Drug overdoses are soaring, with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting a grim record of more than 100,000 fatalities in 2021. Synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, have greatly contributed to this surge. “The drug supply is getting increasingly unpredictable,” says Sheila Vakharia, the deputy director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance. Even people who purchase pills must be careful, Vakharia cautions, as counterfeiters are pressing fentanyl to look like prescription drugs like Oxycontin. And although it is not nearly as prevalent an issue, sometimes clusters of overdoses are caused by cocaine, methamphetamines, and other non-opioid drugs inadvertently cross-contaminated with fentanyl. Meanwhile, the weather’s getting warmer, people are restless, and festival season has begun. It’s shaping up to be a hedonistic summer, which is why Narcan is essential.

Godvin’s not the only activist wading into crowds. Ingela Travers-Hayward and William Perry, an Ohio-based couple, recently founded the nonprofit This Must Be the Place with a mission to deliver Narcan to big-crowd summer events. Starting at the end of May, they will travel around the US to hand out Narcan at eight festivals, including Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, Cleveland’s Wonderstruck, and the legendarily raucous art festival Burning Man in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. “We knew this summer everybody was going to come back out and be partying, maybe even more so than they normally would,” Perry says. With the drug supply as contaminated as it is, though, he’s worried. “They’re going to be walking into a buzz saw.”

Travers-Hayward and Perry decided to target festivals because they figure there will be a large population of people who aren’t habitual drug users but who decide to dabble. With no tolerance, chances of overdose are especially likely. “We thought, you know, we'll email festivals, maybe we'll end up at one or two in Ohio,” Travers-Hayward says. “But then we started getting good feedback.” The duo has even had to turn down some festivals because they don’t have the bandwidth to be there. They’ll be passing out Narcan from booths within the grounds. “We’ve been lucky that the venues are totally on board.”

That hasn’t always been the case. Colorado-based lawyer Daniel Garcia has been carrying naloxone for a long time, and he initially ran into some resistance. Ten years ago, volunteering for the long-running public health organization DanceSafe, he went to a show in Denver equipped with naloxone. The venue owners wouldn’t let him bring it in. “They got a little squirrelly,” he says. Garcia remembers they were worried it might look as though they condone drug use, as they had prior problems with people using drugs at shows. “My counter was, well, you're admitting that you have all of this going on, and you're getting into trouble for it. Wouldn't it be safer and better to have medicine and services in place to prevent overdoses and deaths on your dance floor? They didn't buy that.” But now, Garcia says, he has no trouble carrying naloxone. “Everybody’s familiar with it. Now, lately, I actually get a thank you for carrying it.”

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What’s more, it’s even available at the Colorado Springs courthouse where Garcia works. “A few months ago, somebody began overdosing in the middle of a hearing, and one of the court clerks just jumped right on it, grabbed the Narcan.”

Occasionally, though, there is still some pushback. Brooklyn-based writer Virginia K. Smith recently had her Narcan confiscated from a club in Williamsburg, even though she explained its purpose to the security team. “I think I literally said, ’It’s the opposite of drugs,’” she says. New York mayor Eric Adams’ office recently launched an initiative to encourage bar owners and other nightlife leaders to stock Narcan; this incident is a reminder that the message hasn’t sunk in across the board.

DanceSafe education manager Rachel Clark says whether a venue will allow naloxone often comes down to individual security staffs. Naloxone comes in two dominant forms. One, a nasal spray, is popular for its ease of use, but it can be expensive. The other is injectable (or sometimes auto-injectable); because this involves needles, it’s harder to use without training. It’s also more likely to be confiscated, as needles tend to get flagged at entry points during bag checks. Most festivals and shows do allow people to bring in prescription medications, so carrying it should be permitted. Still, anyone carrying it around should look into local rules and prepare for a potential mistaken confiscation. Clark also stresses that there is a naloxone shortage, so stockpiling is unwise. “People don’t need to hoard Narcan,” she says. 

Hoarding is bad—but simply having Narcan on hand is a wise choice. And for people who want to start carrying without waiting to connect with an outreach group like Beats Overdose, most major cities have harm-reduction groups offering training for naloxone kits for individuals. When I lived in New York, for example, I went to the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center in downtown Manhattan and received a kit for free after a quick training session. Now I keep it in the bottom of my purse, just in case. There are also some programs designed to mail naloxone to people who don’t have access to it locally, like the online harm-reduction resource NextDistro. NextDistro also has a detailed state-by-state breakdown of Good Samaritan laws and policies regarding naloxone and drug-safety gear on its website; it is a crucial tool to ensure local compliance.

Narcan isn’t the only vital gear to fight fatal overdoses. Fentanyl test strips, for example, can help people identify the presence of the opioid before they take drugs, and there’s a parallel push to promote drug testing in nightlife settings. (Beats Overdose also passes out test strips.) But Narcan is a great place to start. The scale of the overdose crisis is so vast, it’s difficult to comprehend without feeling utterly bleak. Heading out into the world equipped with a small kit capable of saving a life is a way to actively participate in a societal shift toward harm reduction. “These services have never been more needed,” Godvin says.


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