A group of Houston-based activists are recruiting bartenders to fight the overdose crisis with a new educational program designed to teach service professionals how to spot – and help – someone who has overdosed.
The informal collective of activists, which bears the name Harm Redux HTX on Instagram, uses a practice known as harm reduction, which aims to alleviate the harmful consequences of drug use. “It is the main belief that all life is precious,” says Flores, an organizer of the group. (Editor’s note: Both organizers interviewed for this article requested that their full names not be released, due to Texas laws that can sometimes be used against people who engage in harm reduction practices. )
“It’s also a desire to reduce the stigma around drug use,” says Flores, who adds that people who use drugs are often seen in the context of their value to capitalism, which means that people who use drugs are often seen in the context of their value to capitalism. people are denied social support like housing, insurance, counseling, and more.
“[The view is] if that person is unreliable, or is an obstacle to my ability to profit from them, then they do not deserve the services of the state. And that’s why you see so many people falling through the cracks, ”Flores continues. “When a moral standard is implemented or exercised on people who use [drugs], it then gives the State reasons to refuse to take care of them. Like, now it’s good to dehumanize them, it’s good for them to be homeless and to be underserved by the community.
The group’s work is a response to the overdose crisis that has lasted for a decade in the country initiated both by the widespread prescription of synthetic opioid pain relievers like fentanyl and by the aggressive marketing of drugs as “non-addictive” by manufacturers like Purdue Pharma. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. Numerous studies indicate that a wide range of intersecting factors, such as increased economic insecurity and social isolation, have exacerbated opioid use. Opioid use can also affect respiratory and lung health, which can make people with opioid use disorder more sensitive to COVID-19, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Texas is among the states hardest hit by these overlapping crises. According to the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that supports independent research into health problems, overdose deaths in the state increased by over 35% in the first eight months of 2020.
Before the pandemic, volunteers with Harm Redux HTX were showing up in bars around town, sharing leaflets and information on how to spot an overdose with bar employees and patrons. They shared their knowledge on the use of Narcan, a drug that helps reverse the effects of overdose. But as the overdose crisis in Texas worsened, volunteers decided to develop a more formal program to provide this training to bartenders and other workers in the service industry.
The group believes this information is essential knowledge for bartenders, such as knowing how many ounces are in a double pour and when to cut off a drinker who has consumed too much alcohol. Harm Redux HTX views the work they do as an adjunct to the training bartenders undertake when licensed by the state Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
“It’s really just an extension of that,” says Flores. “When you drink, you are generally more inclined to use other substances. And so, with this concentration of issues happening in bars and venues, it makes sense that bartenders are already used to having to learn this knowledge through TABC.
Rosey, another organizer of the group, notes that bars and clubs are hot spots for the use of other substances, and that bartenders have a unique relationship with their customers that can make it easier to spot an overdose or overdose. unusual behavior. “Who’s sober at the bar?” Rosey said. “Who sees these customers coming for a drink? ”
Part of Harm Redux HTX’s awareness program involves providing bar staff with training on how to acquire and administer Narcan, or naloxone, a prescription drug that can be used to reverse the effects of an overdose. The drug can be given by injection or inhalation and is not addictive. Equally important, however, is the concept of harm reduction.
“It’s not just about giving Narcan to the person and everything will be fine,” says Flores. “There are steps to take if you are not a doctor. These steps include making sure the person has taken the full dose, staying with them to support them while the Narcan goes off, and safely defusing the situation without having to call the police.
“Other harm reduction training has different practices, such as calling 911 immediately,” Rosey explains. “But we understand the police brutality that often occurs after calling 911. As such, the group encourages bartenders to make sure all drug paraphernalia is removed from sight before calling for emergency help. .
It’s not a perfect system, Rosey admits. “There is no definite way, nor precise rules, to ensure that no harm occurs,” they say. “It’s a tricky situation so we have to figure out how to navigate it safely. We try to remove all possible damage that we can, which involves the law, unfortunately. We need to make sure everyone involved is safe. “
The band is just getting started, but Harm Redux HTX has already had a few bars and employees have expressed interest in the formation, including Austin concert halls, Empire Control Room, and Parish. But they also face obstacles in publicizing the program in other cities in Texas, including what they believe to be a Instagram shadowban this prevented the collective from sharing its resources with some of the workers who might need them most.
Additionally, Texas has laws that can be used against people who practice harm reduction. These laws include things like Houston’s ban on feeding the homeless, and laws that target trade in clean syringes. (Rosey notes that in Texas, a person caught with a supply of clean needles intended for a syringe exchange could be charged with individual needle felony under state drug paraphernalia laws.)
Still, the group believes the benefits of this training outweigh the risks to bar staff, especially since in Texas and many other states, bartenders can be held legally responsible for the behavior of intoxicated customers.
Despite these challenges, Harm Redux HTX is moving forward. The group is currently in contact with bartenders and bar owners statewide, particularly in Houston, trying to get their harm reduction strategies known to as many eyeballs as possible.
Bar owners and service workers who want to participate in the Harm Redux HTX training program can email the group at [email protected]