Broome County recently received about $1.6 million in a settlement fund to support efforts to combat the opioid crisis. While this settlement is generous and a step in the right direction, it is definitely no fix-all. As the Pipe Dream editorial board expressed last spring in response to the recent availability of Narcan around BU’s campus, these are piecemeal, retroactive solutions to an issue that requires a complete paradigm shift in how we care for and resource citizens. An issue as systemic and widespread as opioid addiction, which is especially pervasive in Broome County, must be addressed holistically and aggressively.
Broome County offers a microcosm of the ways in which a community might be at risk for widespread opioid addiction. Broome County has struggled with an opioid epidemic for decades. In 2020, Broome County suffered from double the opioid overdose rate of the statewide average, with 35.8 overdoses per 100,000 people. Last year, 460 people in Broome County overdosed on opioids, resulting in 80 deaths.
The origins of the U.S.’ opioid epidemic can be attributed in large part to multi-system regulation failure and large pharmaceutical companies like the infamous Purdue Pharma. However, certain socio-economic factors can put areas like Broome County at heightened risk. For example, national surveys have indicated that rural areas experience higher mortality and injury rates from opioids, and adolescents are more likely to use prescription opioids nonmedically than urban youth.
Additionally, opioid overdoses are concentrated in areas with higher rates of poverty and unemployment, with homelessness. These risk factors offer clues as to why Broome County has been hit especially hard by opioid addiction, as a county struggling with a housing crisis, labor shortage and a poverty rate above the national average.
Given that Broome County’s opioid crisis is inextricably intertwined with these larger systemic issues, the county requires more than the band-aid solution that this settlement offers. The settlement money is planned to be distributed among seven medical and harm reduction corporations and community organizations. While $1.6 million is a hefty donation, if split evenly among these organizations, each would receive around one or two hundred thousand. For example, Truth Pharm, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing harm caused by substance abuse, received $150,000 in funding. Despite being extremely generous and useful, a one-time donation is insufficient to sustain these organizations’ work in the long-term, especially for non-profit organizations like Truth Pharm.
As Alexis Pleus, Truth Pharm’s executive director, explained to our News team, a second round of funding is not available to organizations receiving funding in this first round. Pleus expressed a concern that we still hold — “12-month funding is an ineffective way to support organizations on the front line.” Battling this crisis requires consistent funding, rather than the one-off funding the settlement provides. Furthermore, when distributing funds, local, often underfunded organizations should be prioritized, as they are able to best identify the specific needs of their community and develop effective solutions.
While organizations like Truth Pharm are engaging in amazing preventive and reparative work and should be supported to the greatest extent possible, addressing the aforementioned systemic issues fueling Broome County’s opioid crisis is crucial. This includes alleviating Broome County’s housing crisis and bolstering employment. When responding to drug use, there must be a paradigm shift away from criminalization and punishment and toward harm reduction.
What can meaningful harm reduction and preventive strategies to address Broome County’s opioid crisis look like?
Preventive strategies can include building more affordable housing for individuals and families and making pre-existing housing more accessible and catered toward locals rather than students. As members of Broome County who contribute to some of these issues, we should use our power as students to hold the University accountable for the ways it has also helped grow these problems.
Additionally, decriminalizing drug use and possession and implementing harm-reduction programs would allow a shift from substance misuse being considered a criminal problem to acknowledging it as a medical and mental health issue. Harm reduction efforts should include establishing accessible safer consumption sites where people are able to safely consume drugs and overdoses can be quickly and properly responded to.
While organizations like TruthPharm offer crucial resources like sterile syringes and fentanyl strips, as well as harm reduction and drug safety training, Broome County does not have any safer consumption sites. As we noted in our March editorial, unfortunately, in 2022, a Johnson City law made even this prospect more unlikely by limiting areas where overdose prevention centers, heroin safe zones, supervised consumption facilities or supervised injection sites would even be allowed to be located. In the meantime, the University and Broome County should make sure that resources like Narcan kits and safe drug supplies are readily available and at no cost or risk to those who are using them.
The opioid crisis is a crisis that exemplifies many of Broome County’s most pressing issues — the pharmaceutical industrial complex, poverty, housing injustice and the criminalization of drug use. This crisis is one that requires serious restructuring of the systems that allow it to perpetuate. This settlement is a great step forward for Broome County, but there’s a long road ahead.