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Kentucky grassroots organizers call for stronger policies to prevent drug overdoses

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Advocates with the grassroots organization VOCAL-KY are working to raise awareness about the benefits of harm reduction measures.

At a press conference Thursday, the group called on state and local officials to create policies aimed at slowing the increase of overdose deaths in the state. According to a recently published state report, 2,250 Kentuckians died of drug overdoses last year — a nearly 15% spike compared to 2020.

Shameka Parrish-Wright directs the organization’s Kentucky chapter. In honor of International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31, her group created an action plan that outlines solutions and policy changes that could save lives, she said. Those include expanding the city’s needle exchange program, creating safe consumption spaces and increasing access to overdose medications, like naloxone.

“Louisville Metro Government has an opportunity to take action,” Parrish-Wright said. “We need to reduce the red tape it takes to access services. We have people dying of overdoses in our local jail all over our streets. And we want to end that now.”

The plan urges officials to implement changes by the end of the year.

Jennifer Twyman, an organizer with VOCAL-KY, said progress depends on dismantling stigmas associated with drug use. She also said it’s time for systems and the people in charge of them to ramp up support for people with substance use disorders instead of criminalizing their actions.

“It’s not fair for me to ask anybody who is using a substance to stop using that substance when they live on the sidewalk,” Twyman said. “When you provide people with tools, the education, the support, and environments to take care of themselves they do. We need to take all the barriers down from housing, let people just be housed and worry about the other stuff later.”

Jessica Lawrence, a community member who’s part of the organization, said the current systems are flawed because they don’t address problems and lack resources to help keep people safe.

“The needle exchange programs, the drop off boxes in and stuff that they put out there, y’all want to take it away — for what? When the people out here really need help,” Lawrence said. “Can you imagine somebody scrubbing a needle up on the ground to stick it in their arm just to get that hit? That’s crazy. And that’s what our society is about.”

The Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition aims to reduce drug-related deaths and the transmission of blood-borne illnesses by helping people access safe supplies and medications to reverse opioid overdoses. The group also works to get people tested for viral infections in an effort to prevent them from progressing. More information and resource links are available on the KHRC website.