Since the 1990s, activists in cities like Chicago, San Francisco and New York have led the nation in practicing harm reduction, tools such as needle exchanges and naloxone distribution designed to help drug addicts make incremental improvements. In the Bible Belt, many who held conservative views criticized harm reduction as something that encouraged the use of drugs. Many states banned such practices outright. Attitudes have shifted, given the sheer scale of the epidemic, reports Stateline. “Over time, harm reduction became seen as something that’s common sense,” said Michael-Devereux Louis Bertin of the South Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. “There’s a whole new wave of support for harm reduction in the South.” In 2014, when nearly 29,000 Americans died from opioids, no Southern state had allowed both needle exchanges and naloxone. With the national death toll exceeding 47,000 in 2017, every Southern state has approved giving drug users access to the antidote without a prescription.
Following Kentucky and North Carolina, Georgia this month enacted a law and Florida is close to approving one to expand distribution of sterile syringes to help drug users avoid spreading HIV, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases. “This type of legislation hasn’t always been popular with our majority party,” said Georgia state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Republican surgeon and a sponsor of a needle exchange bill that recently passed. “But our opioid problem has gotten more attention. And when President Trump made getting rid of HIV a priority, blessing what hadn’t been popular before, it opened the way for harm reduction.” Activists say hurdles remain. Many Georgia schools have yet to stock nurses’ offices with naloxone. Lawmakers in Alabama and Louisiana have blocked bills to legalize syringe exchanges. Many states, following the Trump administration’s lead, have bristled safe-consumption sites that are being considered in some cities.