You can now participate in an online memorial to honor over 1 million lives lost to overdose in the United States since 1999. Anyone can add a name, picture and obituary. Launched on February 14, it’s inspired in part by the AIDS Quilt—a massive project started in 1985 to commemorate the victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Vital Strategies, the nonprofit behind the memorial, has paired it with a national advertising campaign, “Harm Reduction Saves Lives.” This includes a full-page ad in the New York Times, and three video ads that will air in the Washington, DC area on major TV networks like CNN, BET and ESPN and online outlets like YouTube and Hulu. According to Vital Strategies, it is the largest-ever harm reduction ad campaign. It is expected to reach 37 million people—hopefully including lawmakers.
“It took me out of all the misery I was living in … Harm reduction saved my life.”
“I contracted hep C from sharing needles,” says Acxel, a harm reduction outreach worker, in one of the video ads. “When I got introduced to harm reduction, little by little I started making changes in my life. It took me out of all the misery I was living in … Harm reduction saved my life.”
The campaign’s goals are to secure more harm reduction services throughout the country, together with more funding and more support for them. It’s raising awareness of five strategies that are proven to save the lives of people who use drugs—naloxone, syringe service programs, medications for opioid use disorder, drug checking and overdose prevention centers (also known as safe consumption sites).
“The memorial is a way for people to share the loving, tender, meaningful, powerful loss of life we’re experiencing with the overdose crisis,” Daliah Heller, vice president of drug use initiatives at Vital Strategies, told Filter. The campaign website includes a directory for people to find harm reduction services and organizations in their area.
In 2021, President Biden’s administration authorized federal funding for harm reduction services for the first time. But the total sum for programs nationwide was only $30 million, and none of it has actually been released yet. And this month, caving to a right-wing public backlash, the federal government clarified that it would not allow funding to supply pipes in safe smoking kits.
Nonetheless, money from Biden’s coronavirus bill, plus financial damages from the historic legal settlements with opioid pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors, will be coming directly to states and providers throughout this year, Heller explained. She hopes that one outcome of the ad campaign will be to keep the focus of this funding squarely on harm reduction.
“How are supplies that are useful for people to protect their own health, and the health of their friends who they may be using drugs with, how are those supplies criminalized?”
But even more money would be of limited use if governments throughout the country continue to block or place heavy restrictions on harm reduction services.
The ad campaign has no explicit “calls to action” for viewers, like phoning or emailing lawmakers. It is simply focused on raising awareness of the issues, letting people know the options, and building the consensus that the current approach is failing.
“The way we think about harm reduction,” Heller said, “is it’s about decriminalizing people who use drugs. So what are some of the ways they are criminalized? How are supplies that are useful for people to protect their own health, and the health of their friends who they may be using drugs with, how are those supplies criminalized?”
Photograph from the campaign courtesy of Vital Strategies