Workers fighting America’s overdose crisis are ‘hanging by a thread’
By Noah Weiland
So many of Deborah Krauss’ friends and neighbors have died of drug overdoses during the pandemic that she said she felt as if she had been living inside of a dream. The longest she has gone without someone dying, she noted, is three weeks. Her calendar grew cluttered with funerals.
“I lost count at 40,” she recalled on a recent evening in a Des Moines, Iowa, office as she organized supplies to help people consume drugs more safely. “And it just keeps happening.”
The next day, Krauss was on the road, parked outside a Walmart in the small town of Osceola, her trunk brimming with boxes of syringes, fentanyl test strips and overdose-reversing medication. A former hair stylist, she recalled the stress of grooming an ex-boyfriend’s facial hair to make him presentable at his funeral after he died from an overdose in 2018.
Krauss, 38, is one of the few practitioners in Iowa of a public health strategy known as “harm reduction,” a wide-ranging set of policies that President Joe Biden and many federal and local health officials and physicians have made central to their efforts to curtail record-breaking overdose deaths. The strategy does not seek to cut people off from drug use. Instead, it aims to give them tools to use drugs in a safer manner, like the supplies in Krauss’ trunk.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Biden, the first president to endorse the strategy, highlighted the federal government’s attention to some of the core features of harm reduction work, including a provision in a recently enacted spending package that makes it easier for doctors to prescribe buprenorphine, an effective addiction medication that Krauss works to get to drug users. During his speech, Biden recognized the father of a 20-year-old from New Hampshire who died from a fentanyl overdose, citing the more than 70,000 Americans dying each year from the potent synthetic opioid.
The father’s story, he said, was “all too familiar to millions of Americans.”
But two years after Biden took office, with the nation’s drug supply increasingly complex and deadly, the practice of harm reduction remains underfunded and partially outlawed in many states. The work is often conducted by organizations that run syringe exchange programs, with workers like Krauss, a former methamphetamine user, functioning as brokers between drug users and the resources they need to manage their consumption. Those workers can face legal risk in the process.
“I have a hard time seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Krauss said. “We’ve been hanging by a thread.”
Krauss works for the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, one of the few harm reduction groups in the state. The coalition operates a syringe exchange program, which also routes drug users to medication-assisted treatment, in which they receive drugs that can help manage cravings.
Researchers at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, estimate that there are only around 1,100 full-time workers nationwide like Krauss, aided by a cast of around 600 part-time staff members and roughly 2,000 volunteers. A national survey conducted by RTI found that the median annual budget of a syringe exchange program was roughly $100,000, far less than what is needed to cover salaries, supplies and travel expenses.
The scale of the challenge facing those workers is vast: Over 100,000 Americans die each year from drug overdoses — one every five minutes, the White House estimates. Many of those who die are younger than 50.
Critics of harm reduction have argued that the strategy takes a permissive stance toward drug use, signaling acceptance of dangerous substances without the ultimate goal of sobriety. Many Republicans and some prominent Democrats have expressed discomfort with at least some of the aims of the approach. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said at a congressional hearing last year that he “worried that making drugs more accessible is what this administration calls drug control.”
Public health experts say that disproportionate attention to abstinence can be ineffective and punitive, leading drug users into a maze of treatment regulations and stigmatizing environments that can discourage the use of medication. They point to a body of federal and academic research that they argue has demonstrated that harm reduction saves lives, prevents dangerous disease outbreaks and leads to greater uptake of treatment.
But finding money to pay for the work is difficult. And while supplies can be cheap — $1 for a fentanyl test strip, for example — scaling the response to the magnitude of the overdose crisis in many communities is often prohibitively expensive.
The kind of work that groups like the Iowa coalition undertake is expensive and time-consuming.
On a recent morning, Krauss, a single mother who often has her 2-year-old daughter in tow, drove to a public housing complex in Osceola, nearly an hour south of Des Moines, to make a single delivery. She greeted Dove Solomon, an opioid user battling immense back pain, with boxes and bags of syringes, alcohol swabs, clean smoking pipes and naloxone, the overdose-reversing medication. The night before, Krauss had called to check in on Solomon, soothing her after the death of one of her dogs.
The Iowa group’s crusading style of helping drug users is not unusual. Harm reduction workers across the country are often former or current drug users with deep ties to communities of other users and experience navigating treatment that can benefit others. Those relationships allow the workers to find vulnerable and isolated people in ways that can be challenging for outsiders.
Krauss, who makes around $55,000 a year, or roughly half the coalition’s 2022 budget, loosely oversees a network of hundreds of drug users who rely on her drop-offs, calling and texting her when they are in need. Serving as a kind of roving medical and social worker, she delivers drug use supplies around Iowa until 10 p.m. most weeknights, scrambling to counsel or intervene before an overdose.
“Even at 2 a.m.,” she said, “I will respond to a user who is worried about what they’re going to try.”
Krauss often looks for homeless residents who may need a syringe or fentanyl test strip, or parks behind a local McDonald’s in search of people who might want help. She also visits the emergency room with clients of her group, helping them navigate the stress of hospital care for an infection or overdose.
The intimacy of the work has meant that harm reduction groups prioritize funding the small staffs they already have. “I need to pay people — people who are comfortable in these communities,” said Dr. Andrea Weber, a psychiatrist at the University of Iowa who heads the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition’s board of directors.
Krauss and her colleagues face legal peril in Iowa, a conservative state that has been cracking down on drug use. It is one of more than a dozen states with drug paraphernalia laws that forbid the use of fentanyl test strips, a priority of Biden’s drug control strategy. Other materials used for drug consumption, such as pipes and syringes, can also be seen as forbidden for that reason.
State and federal laws have also stifled funding for harm reduction, said Corey Davis, the director of the Harm Reduction Legal Project at the Network for Public Health Law, which advises syringe exchange programs. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages the use of syringe exchange programs, he noted, federal funds typically cannot be used to purchase syringes for drug use. The recent spending package, which Biden signed into law in December, banned the use of federal money in purchasing pipes, Davis added.
Some harm reduction groups get creative to cover costs. Jessica Carter, who oversees a harm reduction program in Nashua, New Hampshire, said she relied on proceeds from charity poker games to buy syringes.
As Krauss waited for people to pick up supplies at the Des Moines office one recent evening, she reflected on the relentlessness of fatal overdoses in Iowa, something that she said many Americans might not easily associate with states like her own.
“It makes sense in New York; it makes sense in San Francisco,” she said. “Why would it make sense in Pella, Iowa?”