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Editor’s Letter – 3/6/19

In the spring of 2015, at the urging of local law enforcement, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence temporarily lifted a ban on needle exchange programs in response to the Hoosier State’s roaring HIV epidemic. I had just moved to the southern Indiana college town of Bloomington—about an hour-and-change northwest of rural Scott County, where more than 200 people had become infected, largely as the result of using dirty needles to inject prescription opioids.

Pence would make headlines months later with his signing of Indiana SB 101 (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act), which gave business owners a license to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. You couldn’t walk down the street in Bloomington without passing sign after sign bearing the same prophetic message: STOP MIKE PENCE—YOUR RIGHTS COULD BE NEXT!

In the face of overwhelming opposition from business owners, faith leaders, LGBTQ+ communities and their allies, Pence backtracked on the discriminatory legislation, just as he reconsidered his “moral opposition” to the state’s ban on needle exchanges. His bungling of the former cemented his national image as a fundamentalist weirdo, and his slow response on the latter lead to the most devastating HIV outbreak in state history.

Making daily life harder for gay couples, or keeping safe methods of injection out of reach for those struggling with drug addiction, must somehow feel to powerful reactionaries like the right thing to do. But as soon as the NCAA threatens to pull the Final Four from your basketball-obsessed state, and corpses start piling up in local morgues thanks to your rigid and retrograde ideas about morality, things start looking different fast.

I would encourage our own Gov. Kevin Stitt to visit his hometown of Tulsa and see the work being done by local community advocates Andrea Haddox and Hana Fields. They head up a coalition called SHOTS (Stop Harm on Tulsa Streets) which offers free, clean syringes and the opioid overdose-reversal medication Narcan to those in crisis. Oklahoma has lost hundreds of our friends, neighbors, and family members to drug overdoses caused by prescription painkillers. Conservatives clutch their pearls at the idea of harm reduction, but as Haddox points out: “People can’t recover if they’re dead.”

With our new Republican governor making positive noises about criminal justice reform and possibly expanding Medicaid—see Barry Friedman’s skeptical column (“Heal Thyself”) in our Feb. 20 issue—now is the time to make our case for the common-sense reforms we know will make our city and state a more humane and compassionate place to live. Elsewhere in this issue, we’ve got prescriptions for fixing Oklahoma’s broken parole system; helping people without homes in Tulsa; moving to renewable sources of energy and more.

Are you reading, Kev? We need your help!