Overdose deaths in Texas rose by 35 percent in the first eight months of the pandemic, and as the state reopens, a group of citizen volunteers is working to implement harm reduction training in common drug use sites: bars.
Called Harm Redux HTX, the collection of activists is an informal Houston-based group that meets with bartenders around the city and the broader state to conduct harm-reduction training for service employees who may witness drug abuse or even overdose in the workplace.
Harm reduction doesn’t focus on stopping drug use, but rather addressing the negative consequences for improved community safety. They operate under the principle that if people are going to find a way to do drugs, it’s best to be prepared to treat the consequences. Part of the training involves knowledge on how to obtain and administer Narcan, an overdose-reversing drug, but it also includes other important information. Volunteers also train bartenders on how to engage with first-responders and police after an overdose occurs, as well as how to spot signs of drug use that could potentially escalate into a dangerous situation.
Harm Redux HTX tells Eater that if bartenders are trained to spot drunk patrons and refuse to serve them, they should have the skill sets to address drug abuse as well. They note that bars and clubs are hotspots for drug use, so training bartenders is a highly effective way to promote public safety. There are also benefits for bartenders who, in the state of Texas and many others, can actually be held liable for the behavior of intoxicated patrons.
Unfortunately, other laws in the state require group members to remain anonymous. Texas has passed bills that actively prevent harm-reduction strategies including laws that prohibit feeding the unsheltered and setting up clean needle exchange sites.
Studies have shown that harm reduction is a vital component of public health when it comes to substance abuse, and is actually more effective than outlawing substances altogether. Places like the state of Oregon and Portugal have actually legalized drug possession, but criminalized drug sale, to emphasize a human-centered approach to substance abuse prevention. In Portugal, the initiative has been highly successful in reducing drug use rates across the entire country.