Preventing overdoses requires awareness — and action


Five people in Colorado will die from drug overdoses today. Another five will tomorrow. And five more every day into the future, until we reverse this devastating trend.

Aug. 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day, a time to mourn those we lost to overdoses, support those who survived an overdose, and honor those grieving the loss of their loved ones. It is also a time to talk openly about the issue and what can be done to address it.

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There were a record-high 1,881 fatal overdoses in Colorado in 2021 — and more than 107,000 nationwide — making this crisis one of the worst public health disasters of our lifetime. We lost sons and daughters, moms and dads, friends, and coworkers. If you did not lose someone, chances are you know someone who did.

What makes it even more heartbreaking is that many of these deaths were preventable. We have decades of research and a mountain of evidence that demonstrates how certain reforms could save people’s lives.

The current overdose crisis is the product of longstanding, ineffective drug policies that prioritize punishment and interdiction over prevention, harm reduction, and treatment. When it’s easier for people to find themselves in jail for drug use than it is get into treatment, you know we’re on the wrong track. When it’s easier for people to find themselves in jail for drugs than it is for them to access treatment, we’re on the wrong track. If enforcement, criminal penalties, and prisons were effective at eliminating drug use, the US would not have both the highest incarceration rate and the highest overdose rate in the world.

Colorado can reverse the trend in fatal overdoses by implementing evidenced-based public health approaches that are proven to save lives.

Overdoses are tragic, accidental deaths that can happen to anyone who uses drugs, especially when multiple drugs are consumed at the same time or in combination with alcohol. Drug prohibition exacerbates the problem, because it incentivizes manufacturers to make drugs cheaper and more potent. This is evidenced by the recent shift toward fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, which have been fueling the overdose crisis.

Because there are no controls in place for how these drugs are manufactured and used, consumers do not know what they’re getting, how potent it is, or whether it has been adulterated. And because of the severe legal penalties surrounding drugs, consumers use them clandestinely and may be unwilling to seek help in an emergency.

This sad truth has been borne out again and again, but it doesn’t have to continue. Colorado can reverse the trend in fatal overdoses by implementing evidenced-based public health approaches that are proven to save lives.

Here are some things everyone can do to help.

  • Have open, honest, and non-judgmental conversations about drug use with your family, especially young adults.
  • Get trained in how to recognize and respond to an overdose.
  • Learn about naloxone, which can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. Keep it on hand and encourage others to carry it if they or others around them are at risk of an overdose.
  • Support local harm reduction programs by visiting, volunteering, and donating.
  • Talk to your elected officials about expanding access to treatment, housing-first models of care, and methadone and other medications used to treat opioid and stimulant use disorders.
  • Raise awareness and support for Overdose Prevention Centers, which currently operate in close to 200 locations across the world.
  • Support onsite drug checking at syringe access programs and large public events, so people know what is in the substances they are taking.
  • Urge the Denver City Council to declare the overdose crisis a public health emergency so resources can be deployed.

These simple actions can go a long way in preventing fatal overdoses in Colorado, and even further by promoting a more evidence-based, public health approach to substance abuse. But our efforts cannot stop there.

It is time for our state and national leaders to revisit and reform the longstanding prohibition policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

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