Harm Reduction Club addresses Portland’s growing fentanyl crisis

Photo of student running Harm Reduction table
Courtesy of Harm Reduction Club

The United States has long struggled with the opioid epidemic. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has historically served as an important drug in the medical industry to treat severe pain, typically in patients with advanced cancer. The drug is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Over the past ten years, the production of illicit fentanyl has skyrocketed, infiltrating communities across the nation and exacerbating the opioid epidemic. 

On Jan. 30, Governor Tina Kotek, Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler declared a 90 day state  of emergency to address downtown Portland’s Portland’s fentanyl crisis. The tri-government emergency declarations instruct state, county and city officials to direct available resources towards Portland’s drug crisis. As cities across the country grapple with approaches to the worsening opioid epidemic, which is coming to be known as the fentanyl crisis due to the sheer number of fentanyl-related overdoses, they are implementing and experimenting with a number of strategies — from decriminalization efforts to drug restriction and regulation to harm reduction.

A number of advocacy groups in Portland focus on harm reduction as a method of encouraging safer use among communities where drug use and abuse is more prevalent. Harm reduction strategies can range from safe syringe and injection practices, to drug testing, to Naloxone (Narcan) distribution to ensuring immunity from criminal prosecution for administering or distributing harm reduction supplies. Among these groups is Lewis & Clark’s Harm Reduction & Community Outreach Club, which serves two vital functions: the first being the dispensation of educational materials, harm reduction resources and informational trainings on campus, and the second being the social justice or community outreach aspect which connects Lewis & Clark students to volunteer or advocacy opportunities in the greater Portland area.

The Harm Reduction & Community Outreach Club  which only established its footing last semester, has grown significantly over the course of four months. With eight board members and 10 to 20 attendees showing up to weekly club meetings, the club has garnered enough support to begin hosting more events, workshops and trainings. Sarah Smith ’25, who co-founded the club back in October, spoke to the relevance of harm reduction practices and education within the LC community, noting the club’s rapid expansion.

“We’ve started building a little bit of a harm reduction community, which is really great to see,” said Smith. “When I started the club last semester, I didn’t know what to expect, but I think that people on campus really seem to care about harm reduction and want to get involved.”

An important part of ensuring that club events and resources are accessible has to do with the timing of events and meetings. Earlier in the year, the club considered organizing a symposium, but ultimately decided against it. Virginia Gray ’24, the events coordinator, described the reasoning behind the club’s intermittent event model and how its emphasis on accessibility aligns with the club’s goals.

“We met with Kim Brodkin, who runs the Ray Warren Symposium, and she basically just made a really great pros and cons list of the symposium model vs. the intermittent event model,” said Gray. “After that, we decided that doing an event every month would be more realistically accessible for students to attend.”

Smith elaborated on the importance of the intermittent model in using limited resources to prioritize accessibility throughout the semester.

“I think resources are limited throughout campus, but especially in our case, when we’re providing life saving resources like Narcan, fentanyl test strips, that should probably take priority over a symposium,” Smith said. “That was a lot of the draw for us, wanting to make sure it was accessible. We also wanted to leave space for these other really great symposiums that are happening this semester.”

The Harm Reduction & Community Outreach Club has already hosted a number of events this semester, including a Harm Reduction and Alcohol Safety Night in Stewart Hall, an informal CPR training and a screening of virtual volunteer training for the Portland People’s Outreach Program (PPOP). On Feb. 29, the club hosted a screening of “Love in the Time of Fentanyl,” followed by a discussion about overdose prevention centers. The intimate documentary explores the scene of Vancouver, Canada, in which the Overdose Prevention Society responds to the city’s overdose crisis and looks beyond the widespread stigma that poses barriers to recovery for those experiencing active addiction.

Students can look forward to the many events the club will be offering this spring semester, some of which will train students to respond confidently to emergency situations and educate the community about the principles and practices of harm reduction. In addition to intramuscular and intranasal Naloxone training, drug testing training and volunteer certification training, the club will begin hosting CPR training for all those who are interested.

“We’re going to host official certifications and pay for people to get certified,” said Smith. “We’re doing it with the head athletic trainer who is able to certify people. We’re using part of our budget — and then the Paddle Club and the Center for Social Change are also going to be involved in that — so it’s kind of a big collaboration.”

Molly Atkinson, ’24, a board member, noted that a CPR certification typically costs around $55 per person, and that they are hoping the Associated Student Body’s Finance Committee will honor their appeal for more funding to cover these costs completely.

“Ideally, we would want to be able to pay for almost all of that for any student that wants to attend, or at least half,” Atkinson said. “We have appealed and we’re waiting to hear back about budgets so we can pay for the CPR certifications of our students, so it’s a completely free resource, which is what our goal is as a club. That’s also why we are planning to partner with Paddle Club and Center for Social Change, to really try and make sure that this is completely accessible and free to anyone who wants to do it.”

Another potential event to look forward to could be a multi-department faculty panel.

“Relying on faculty instead of outsourcing several thousand-dollar speakers is something we’re interested in,” said Gray.

Gray shared that they have been collaborating with other groups, such as Resident Advisors, Campus Safety, athletic programs and the Feminist Student Union (FSU), to distribute resources across campus.

The board members also spoke about their goal of connecting students to off-campus volunteer opportunities. 

“We’re the Harm Reduction & Community Outreach Club, so there is a community outreach aspect of it,” said Smith. “Volunteering out in Portland, getting involved, that is really important.”

Smith noted that several organizations offer both outreach and in-reach opportunities for volunteers, which allows those who are more hesitant about working with people who use drugs in Portland to help in other ways.

“Some great organizations in Portland are Central City Concern, Outside In and PPOP,” said Smith.

Harm reduction is an increasingly important yet controversial topic in the context of the United States’ overdose epidemic. Overdose prevention strategies face widespread stigma and are still relatively unfamiliar to many communities.

“We have a lot of Narcan and fentanyl test strips and other harm reduction supplies in our locker,” said Gray. “We offer them to people, and I think sometimes that people will say no because they think that somebody else should have it instead of them, because they don’t view themselves as being at risk to be in a situation where somebody that they know is in crisis, but everybody does need it.”

The innocent bystander effect plays a role in the prevention of overdose deaths, even before individuals find themselves in an emergency situation. The assumption that other people will have Narcan on hand, be CPR certified or have the knowledge necessary to intervene in a crisis discourages individuals from seeking out and keeping life-saving resources on hand.

“Whether or not you think that you’ll be in that situation or not, you probably will be. We have been. We used Narcan from Harm Reduction Club to reduce an overdose like five days ago. It was somebody we didn’t know, at 10 p.m., in a place where you wouldn’t think,” said Gray. “It’s okay to accept what we’re offering. It’s free and it’s for you. It’s not for somebody else.”

Atkinson related the club’s work to the greater surrounding community.

“Oregon has been declared a state of emergency by the mayor as of Jan. 30, because of the Fentanyl crisis,” they said. “So yeah, we are bigger than just students at our school. We are active community members … At this point, I think it’s applicable to everyone just because of where we live.”

Those on campus may have seen club members handing out harm reduction pamphlets, fentanyl testing strips and Narcan over the past few weeks or may have walked by the FSU office, where supplies are perpetually in stock.

“The Narcan in our locker is not saving anyone’s life,” stated Gray. “And it totally could be.” 

Being an active community member during the opioid epidemic means taking preemptive action and learning basic life-saving skills. Think of carrying Narcan around as carrying around pepper spray, an inhaler, an Epipen or tampons. You may not need it and may not expect to use it, but it may help someone else. In some situations, it may even mean the difference between life and death.

“It’s a little frightening, to take Narcan and think that you’re assuming responsibility for yourself like, ‘It is now my responsibility to give this to someone,’” said Atkinson. “At least having it, you can give it to someone else to give to someone else to prevent an overdose … Our club can tell you things that you’ll want to know about harm reduction. How to reverse an overdose outside of just using Narcan. How to talk to 911. If you come to our CPR certification, how to know if someone’s breathing is regular or not. (These things) aren’t super necessary to our lives, until they really are.”

Harm reduction is an overdose prevention strategy that requires commitment, accountability and open-mindedness. 

“At the end of the day, we’re at a higher education institution, and we all know that education is power, and we’re just trying to empower students with education,” said Gray.

The board members provided valuable insight into the work that they are doing alongside other Portland programs. The club’s emphasis on both the educational and the community outreach aspects of harm reduction approaches a relevant issue from multiple angles. Their intentional use of limited resources and their commitment to teaching life-saving skills has already saved lives, and will continue to do so.

Subscribe to the Mossy Log Newsletter

Stay up to date with the goings-on at Lewis & Clark! Get the top stories or your favorite section delivered to your inbox whenever we release a new issue. 

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

AlphaOmega Captcha Classica  –  Enter Security Code