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Empowering recovery

Tulsa coalition responds to the opioid epidemic with ‘a radical act of love’

Activists Hana Fields (left) and Andrea Haddox lead Stopping Harm On Tulsa Streets.

Greg Bollinger

As the connection between abstinence-only sex education and heightened teen pregnancy rates illustrates, it’s clear that simply telling someone not to engage in a potentially risky activity is not as effective as comprehensive education and harm reduction.

Why, then, are so many reluctant to apply this common sense in treating drug abuse, particularly now, as the opioid crisis continues to grow—and particularly here in Oklahoma, where we’re second in the nation for Hepatitis C cases and 29th for overdose deaths? Maybe we just haven’t thought long and hard enough about treatment alternatives.

SHOTS, or Stop Harm on Tulsa Streets, is a local group aiming to help us rethink the ways in which our city and state treat drug addiction and abuse. Headed by Andrea Haddox, an OU social work graduate student, and Hana Fields, a Tulsa native and activist—both former heroin users themselves—SHOTS has a mission of “reducing the harms associated with drug use and promoting health equity through compassionate, non-judgmental community services, education, and advocacy.” This goal and its principles are referred to generally as harm reduction—it’s the idea that people will engage in risky behavior regardless, so it’s best to ensure they do so as safely as possible.

But harm reduction is still pretty controversial. A common critique of this philosophy is that it “enables” drug users—and it’s easy to understand where this response comes from, considering the ways in which our culture promotes tough love. Like most harm reduction coalitions in the country, SHOTS provides condoms, Narcan (naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal medication), and clean syringes to anyone in need. “Providing Narcan to people who use drugs does not enable them; it saves their lives. People can’t recover if they’re dead,” Haddox said.

“Bottom line is that a lot of our friends are dead,” Fields said. “We know a lot of people with Hepatitis C, some with HIV. There are facts to support that we need this here, but it really started from an emotional reaction.”

So far, Tulsa has been overwhelmingly receptive to their work. The group has received support from several local organizations, such as HOPE Testing, and they are exploring partnerships with Tulsa CARES and other like-minded institutions who work with IV-drug users.

Fields and Haddox were introduced by a mutual friend in October of 2018, and they’ve been eagerly working together to raise awareness of the importance of this alternative way of thinking ever since. The pairing seemed meant to be. Haddox had always been interested in harm reduction, so when she learned Fields had been handing out Narcan on her own, she reached out. Now, just a few months later, SHOTS has a volunteer base of about 30, and their presence in town is constantly growing. They had a table at both the Tulsa Women’s March and the Equality Center’s Trans Resource Fair in January, and their Facebook fundraiser gained more than $1,000 in a couple of weeks over the winter holidays in 2018.

Narcan is a big focus for SHOTS. “We want to make sure everyone has access to it, whether you use drugs, you know somebody who uses drugs, or you have a prescription for opiates. We give it out for free,” Haddox said.

Haddox and Fields think of harm reduction as “a radical act of love,” and it’s one that has proved effective. SHOTS doesn’t push abstinence-based recovery—instead they aim to “meet people where they are, not where [others] expect them to be.” It’s crucial to this conversation to note that when drug users are given harm reduction tools, they are five times more likely to go to treatment, according to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.

Both of these women are doing this work purely out of passion for the mission, not for pay. The group is now taking on the daunting process of grant-writing in order to build something sustainable. A more long-term goal for SHOTS is to write an open letter to the city about the benefits of harm reduction—including organized needle exchanges. To promote their cause, the group is planning a benefit/awareness concert for a weekend in April.

If you’re interested in getting involved, Haddox and Fields encourage you to research on the intricacies of harm reduction. You can follow the SHOTS page on Facebook and reach out with any questions if you’d like to know more information. The group will also be presenting on overdose awareness March 15–17 at the Second Annual Street Medic Training Weekend.

“We just want to open the conversation,” Haddox said. “It’s needed. People are dying for this.”

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