On Friday, Nov. 3, the Granville Inn was home to the 2023 Ohio Harm Reduction Summit, featuring three distinct panels and a speech from keynote speaker Dr. Carl Hart. 

About 100 harm reduction specialists from across the region gathered in Granville to discuss the decriminalization of drugs for mothers and those who give birth, the growing psychedelic movement to improve mental health, and the future of harm reduction in Ohio. 

As a practice, harm reduction calls for advocates to prioritize safety for individuals who use drugs. Rather than preventing drug use, it encourages people to seek and provide the safest possible conditions for individuals who use illicit drugs.

In central Ohio, organizations like Harm Reduction Ohio — the organization responsible for Friday’s conference — use harm reduction strategies to provide resources like naloxone and fentanyl test strips. 

Those resources are vital in Licking County, where more than 100 individuals died due to drug overdoses between 2021 and 2022 according to data from the county coroner’s office. Complete data for 2023 was not available at time of publication. 

Fentanyl —sometimes mixed with other drugs unbeknownst to the user — was involved in a vast majority of overdose deaths in 2021 and 2022. Having a fentanyl-free drug supply could help save lives, advocates said during the conference. 

“Right now, [harm reduction] is policy and advocacy work: specifically safer supply and drug checking,” said Rick Barclay, the community relations manager for harm reduction at Equitas Health. “We hope to reduce harm tangibly. Having a consistent supply that is predictable is one of the safest things we can do for people.”

At the initial Harm Reduction Summit five years ago, organizer Dennis Cauchon said just 21 people attended — and those 21 were the only harm reduction specialists in Ohio at the time. 

This year, Cauchon said the conference had to be “capped” at 100 attendees from various harm reduction organizations across Ohio. 

“Harm reduction is so important in our work because people’s substance use or misuse does not stop them from engaging in our program,” explained Chelsea Dodson, a patient advocate at the Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program in Athens. “We want to meet people where they’re at, and sometimes that includes people who are actively using substances.”

At the summit, panels of individuals who have experienced drug addiction during childbirth, as well as those who use drugs to treat mental health issues, discussed the future of harm reduction strategies in Ohio. 

Barclay, who previously used drugs and was incarcerated, says his experience with recovery gives him a unique understanding of harm reduction policies and how they impact others. He got involved in harm reduction around 2016, when there were few programs offering treatment like that in Ohio. 

“There weren’t many programs operating in the state at the time,” he said. “Failure was not an option. We did what we had to do the way we had to do it.”

Jamie Decker, Ohio Health Department’s harm reduction coordinator and peer support specialist understands this as well.

“We have a safe work syringe service,” Decker said. “It’s not an exchange. We provide syringes, condoms, and lube.We have people available to test for Hep C, HIV, Syphilis, then those folks can get them connected to some kind of treatment.”

Obtaining resources like clean syringes and naloxone can be a challenge for individuals who use drugs, but access to them is vital to prevent dangerous infections like HIV and AIDS. Testing for Hepatitis C and syphilis, too, mitigates significant danger. 

“Right now I’m doing the mail order shipping, for individuals who put in Naloxone orders online,” said HRO’s Kelsey Caitlin. “When it’s warm in Ohio we’ll hit fairs, we’ll table and talk about naloxone. I like to call myself the legs, I do a lot of the groundwork.”

Though Harm Reduction Ohio is based in Licking County, it supports networks and weekly syringe programs in several counties across the state.