A short while ago, I attended our statewide Governor’s Overdose Task Force Meeting. Most states around here have these Task Forces in place, and in Rhode Island, we have a good-sized crowd that shows up every month. During the meeting, someone said something along the lines of “despite the overwhelming increase in overdose deaths in the past year, the state was doing a good job in terms of overdose prevention.” I could not believe my ears. People are dying; and yet, there was a sense of achievement and success in this meeting. I almost spit my coffee out all over my keyboard, unmuted myself, and laughed out loud! Rhode Island is failing when it comes to overdose prevention, and the rise in the overdose death toll is the evidence.
But before I continue, let me formally introduce myself. My name is Roxxanne Newman and I am a person in long term recovery. For roughly ten years, I struggled with primarily an opiate and cocaine addiction. Caught in the grips of addiction, I spent the early 2000s using IV heroin and cocaine, homeless on the streets of Providence, and in and out of prison. I am also an overdose survivor. Twenty-nine overdoses, to be exact.
My lived experience makes me, and others who travel the same bumpy road, bonafide experts. My first-hand knowledge and expertise in the recovery and addiction field far exceeds any degree.
Yet, I often sit in meetings like this where my expertise is “allowed” and “encouraged” but my voice is never truly heard. After five years of being in these meetings, I have come to realize I am only invited because it looks good to have me there. I know others in the recovery community feel the same way.
So why do I feel this way? Why do I have a bad taste in my mouth when I hear what the state has “done”? I’m a leader in the recovery movement that started to gain real momentum in 2013. I attend countless meetings, join task forces, and speak publicly about my addiction and recovery. In 2015, I was the keynote speaker when Governor Gina Raimondo signed the Executive Order establishing the Governor’s Overdose Prevention & Intervention Taskforce.
“Yet, I often sit in meetings like this where my expertise is “allowed” and “encouraged” but my voice is never truly heard.”
But it’s been five years, and my loved ones, friends, family, and my people are still dying.
Don’t get me wrong, we have made progress. Medications used to treat opioid addiction are making big changes in people’s lives. But, people have to be alive to get medication in the first place. This is where the state is failing us. According to former Governor Gina Raimondo’s own words, as written in the state’s Overdose TaskForce Action Plan:
“We must DEMAND and make SWIFT change to address this crisis and promote treatment, prevention, and recovery. We have a single focus in this work: SAVE LIVES” [emphasis mine].
I don’t know about you, but when I think of the word swift, I do not think of it taking 5 years, with the fifth year being the worst year for overdose deaths in the state’s history. And save me the COVID-19 excuses; overdoses were on the rise before the pandemic began.
“We have made progress. Medications used to treat opioid addiction are making big changes in people’s lives. But, people have to be alive to get medication. This is where the state is failing us.”
So, why aren’t we making any progress? My lived experience has taught me that drastic times call for drastic measures. The general public and state officials do not embrace the actions that will save lives and improve treatment & recovery outcomes. These ideas might appear to be radical and may not make sense to some, but we know that they save lives and improve the lives of people in recovery.
Recently, Governor Gina Raimondo ignored a call for an executive order implementing a safer injection facility (SIF), otherwise known as a safer consumption service or overdose prevention site. The evidence demonstrates the efficacy of SIF’s — these are programs that save lives and help people start the recovery process. Still, Governor Raimondo said “no.” So much for “swift change.”
Or how about the Second Chance Bill — a bill that would make simple possession of drugs a misdemeanor instead of a life-altering felony. In the spring of 2019, I spoke in front of the Rhode Island Senate. I testified about the barriers that I face as the result of my simple felony possession charges (including one for having 5 empty bags of crack cocaine underneath the driver seat of a car I did not own). Yet, again, the state refused to move forward on this bill. Why? Because of opposition from law enforcement and disagreements as to what amount of drugs would constitute simple possession.
Or better yet, how about our failing Good Samaritan Law? We have a law that protects people from arrest in the event of an overdose after calling 911, even if there are drugs or paraphernalia at the scene. Yet, police still justify the arrests because they claim they do not have “discretion” in certain events — such as domestic violence calls. The claim is that during a domestic violence dispute the police have to arrest someone. I am still not sure how someone who is unconscious is actively involved in a domestic violence dispute, nor how many emergency calls to an overdose actually involve domestic violence. As usual, the police are looking to justify and rationalize any of their actions in not upholding the Good Samaritan Law.
These are just a few of the ways the state has failed to act, and therefore continue to fail the recovery and addiction community. I could go on and on, but you see I have another meeting to attend. We have them weekly. Just sit around and talk, talk, talking. All the while, people like Kelly, Lisa, and Deborah, people who I loved and adored, die as a result of a drug overdose.
We are done with the lip service. Done with another task force whose primary purpose has become to “talk” about solutions. Someone’s child, parent, friend, and loved one dies each and every day from a preventable overdose. The recovery and harm reduction communities have offered our solutions. Now it is up to the State of Rhode Island to take swift action and remember what the purpose was in the first place….TO SAVE LIVES!!