Harm reduction movement pushes addiction advocacy, needle exchange in Westmoreland County
The Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition wants to spark a conversation and continued commitment to action around addiction and substance abuse in Westmoreland County.
Among its goals: expand access to Naloxone and medication-assisted recovery programs and establish sterile needle exchanges for intravenous drug users.
The Philadelphia-based coalition on Saturday will hold the third in a series of statewide Community Engagement and Advocacy Forums, this time in Greensburg.
The group describes itself as a loose collaborative of treatment providers, harm reduction programs, medical entities, social service agencies, academia, criminal justice reform projects, activists and concerned citizens that advocate for public policy changes to benefit people and communities struggling with substance abuse.
The sold-out forum this weekend at the Westmoreland County Courthouse will feature presentations by Devin Reeves, coalition executive director, and Brooke Feldman, a social activist and consultant on treatment, recovery and addiction issues, who like Reeves, describes herself as an individual in long-term recovery.
“The broad goals of the forums — two of which have already been held in Allegheny and Luzerne counties — are to garner community feedback to empower advocacy efforts and provide guidance to trainees on actionable steps to advocate for policy change on harm reduction issues, including syringe services, expanded access to Naloxone and medication-assisted recovery,” Reeves said.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams and experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support sterile needle exchanges. In Pennsylvania, only Pittsburgh and Philadelphia permit them under local ordinances. Elsewhere, such services are banned under the state’s drug control act.
Carmen Capozzi launched Sage’s Army, a local substance abuse prevention and advocacy organization, after his son’s overdose death in 2012. Capozzi said some here hesitate to endorse needle exchanges. But he supports them.
“It’s the next step,” said Capozzi, of Irwin. “We fought for the Good Samaritan Act, prescription monitoring and Narcan. Needle exchanges are the next step. Maybe we can’t stop people from using, but we can treat the symptoms and stop the transmission of diseases. I could show you over a dozen people I know who almost lost a limb because of abscesses from dirty needles,” he said.
Capozzi, like Reeves, said it would be foolhardy to end efforts to combat the region’s addiction epidemic just because overdose deaths declined last year.
The county coroner’s office reported about 120 overdose deaths last year, down from a record of more than 190 overdose deaths in 2017. The 2018 figure is the lowest overdose death total in the county since 2014.
“We advocate for policies that improve the quality of life for people who use drugs, people in recovery, and their communities,” Reeves said. “Our communities are still facing crisis level overdoses, and the impact of substance use disorder is still profound. It is pivotal that community members galvanize their efforts to ensure that key decision makers continue to embrace a public health response to the overdose epidemic.”
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .