June Leffler Published

Biden’s Plan For Overdoses? Harm Reduction

Democratic presidential nominee former US Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration announced its plan Wednesday to curb drug overdoses in the nation. Overdose deaths are at their height, with the most deaths ever recorded in 2020 across the U.S. and in West Virginia.

Federal officials announced in Baltimore the latest national Overdose Prevention Plan.

The plan, and priorities set by Biden’s Office of Drug Control Policy, highlight a shift to less punitive and evidence-based measures, said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

“Our new strategy focuses on people — putting the very individuals who have struggled with addiction in positions of power,” Becerra said.

Harm reduction is at the core of Biden’s latest plan. Harm reduction is the practice of keeping those actively using drugs as safe as possible. Advocates say it’s the most compassionate response to the opioid crisis, while some policy makers see it as controversial.

Either way, it works, said Robin Pollini. She is a substance abuse and infectious disease epidemiologist at West Virginia University.

“People often think that [harm reduction] is ‘progressive’. It’s not, it’s science-based. It’s like any other science based intervention that you would undertake,” Pollini said.

Federal officials outlined ways to prevent disease and death of those using drugs. That includes providing more naloxone to reverse overdoses, testing strips to see if a substance is laced with fentanyl (a highly dangerous synthetic opioid), and clean needles to curb the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.

The Biden administration hopes to allocate $11 billion in drug programming for the next fiscal year. Congress would have to weigh in.

Even if money and support is allocated to harm reduction services, Pollini worries that West Virginia might not meet the call to action. There are programs in the state that distribute clean needles and naloxone, but some have shut down in recent months. Two programs in Mercer and Marion Counties say they cannot keep up with the requirements of a state law passed this year.

“How do we implement [federal measures], when we have an increasingly limited number of syringe services programs whose activities are further restricted,” said Pollini.

Gov. Jim Justice’s administration responded to Biden’s plan.

“West Virginia’s treatment and recovery landscape has been transformed by implementing evidence-based prevention programs, aggressively expanding treatment and recovery programs, and focusing on getting those with substance use disorder back to their families and into the workforce,” said Dr. Matthew Christiansen, Director of the WV Office of Drug Control Policy. “We look forward to working to ensure our state plan priorities mesh seamlessly with our federal partners and neighboring states.”

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.