CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Charleston County leads the state in opioid-related overdose deaths with 94 reported in 2017, according to the SC Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.
Many of those deaths involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
It is frequently mixed with other drugs to increase their potency, and officials with the South Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition say they are seeing it in everything from heroin to cocaine and Xanax.
SCHRC, a non-profit organization, has handed out over 750 doses of Narcan, an overdose reversal drug, to drug users across the state. Officials say their outreach efforts have resulted in more than 70 overdose reversals.
“The stark reality is that drug use is happening and will continue to happen, and despite our state and country’s best efforts to curb that, overdose rates continue to rocket,” SCHRC Executive Director Michael-Devereux Louis Bertin said. “Harm reduction does something really interesting. Every single time someone comes in contact with us, they are 5 times more likely to seek treatment. We can’t help these people if they are dead.”
SCHRC has also started providing drug users with Fentanyl test strips because of the prevalence of the powerful substance.
So far, in 2019, Charleston County has had six overdose deaths with Fentanyl listed as the contributing factor and three documented as heroin and fentanyl, according to the Charleston County Coroner’s Office. However, officials say they have many more toxicology reports still pending, and it will be weeks before they have a better understanding of what lead to those overdose deaths.
“It’s not my job to save them going forward. It’s my job to give them the opportunity to make a decision,” Bertin said. “We are not here to stop addiction. We are simply here to allow this person to make an actual decision on what they want to do and be informed and educated about the risks they are going to continue to have.”
SCHRC links people with substance abuse recovery, treatment, and healthcare. The organization also offers links to HIV and Hepatitis C testing and treatment options.
“We have such a long history, especially if you go all the way back to the 80s, on what happens when you use drugs. You’re frowned upon; you’re thrown in jail; you’re thrown into a mental institution; you’re given zero to little help,” Bertin said. “So, the first time we run into them, it’s kind of like a stand-off. Are you going to trust me? Are you going to take what I’m offering? And usually by the second or third time, they are calling us, asking us for help, asking us, ‘what do I do in this situation? Where do I go for this? I want to seek recovery; I don’t want to do this anymore; my friends are dying; what do I do?’ And we have the answers.”
Bertin said the organization has created a relationship of trust with drug users in the state to represent a population of people who feel they’ve been misrepresented for so long.
“Maybe they’re not ready to stop using drugs, ok. I can’t stop them, but I can at least get them to where they need to be to where they are taking as little risk as possible,” Bertin said. “We’re talking about mothers; we’re talking about fathers; we’re talking about sons; we’re talking about daughters; we’re talking about high school students that reach out to us.”
SCHRC hopes to learn from the people they help. With every fentanyl test strip, they ask the user to notify the organization if their substances test positive for fentanyl. Officials are collecting this data to learn more about Fentanyl use in South Carolina.
“At this point, you can almost guarantee any kind of heroin you buy on the street is going to have fentanyl in it,” Bertin said. “The problem is fentanyl isn’t just in heroin anymore. It’s in cocaine. It’s in MDMA. It’s being pressed into Xanax. So, it’s in all these other things people are using and no one knows. So, we are handing out the fentanyl test strips to kind of get a gauge of what’s happening in the community as far as what types of drugs have these things.”
The organization asks the same of people who use the overdose reversal drugs. SCHRC keeps a log of how many people are saved because Narcan was made available to them.
“Our society tends to vilify and marginalize people who use drugs, but the drug users I know are the most compassionate, tenacious, empathetic people I’ve ever met,” Heather Brooks said.
She’s an outreach volunteer with SCHRC. The love of her life lost his battle with addiction just six months ago, and the tragedy pushed her to join the coalition to help others.
“They have narratives that deserve to be told, and they can’t tell those if they’re not here,” Brooks said. “We have to keep saving lives. People’s lives are too valuable to lose.”
The organization has goals to expand this work. Bertin said the hope is to eventually acquire a van, so the outreach efforts can become fully mobile. Currently, the group works out of their personal vehicles.
SCHRC officials are also working with MUSC and the state health department to do Hepatitis C and HIV testing and referrals for treatment.