Steve Alsum is the Executive Director of the Red Project in Grand Rapids (GR), Michigan. If you know the Grand Rapids area, you know that it is a decidedly conservative region of the state; not where we expected to find an organization “dedicated to improving health, reducing risk, and preventing HIV.” Since 1998, this 501c3 (non-profit) organization has served west Michigan’s HIV and intravenous drug use community with harm reduction education and needle exchange programs. Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas to reduce the negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.
Alsum experienced the benefits of harm reduction first hand on both the east and west coasts, and became syringe access program manager for GR Red Project in 2007. In 2011, he became Executive Director and has been spearheading the project ever since. The Red Project added a mobile unit in 2012, which presently serves the community two days a week, and “provides clean syringes and miscellaneous supplies at no cost via an anonymous and judgment-free exchange”; they also offer Hepatitis C testing and support, overdose prevention, and sexual health products. The program is called Clean Works and operates out of five different neighborhoods, plus the mobile unit, six days a week. “Syringe access has been extremely effective in Grand Rapids. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, the percentage of total HIV/AIDS cases related to injection drug use has decreased from 25% to under 10%, since 1998 [the year GR Red Project started],” said Alsum. “Our program results in lives saved, but also in incredible savings to the public healthcare system. This syringe access/needle exchange program is based on the belief that supplying clean, personal substance use equipment is a basic human right and supports public health. .”
According to GR Red Project’s website, “Opiate overdose is a national epidemic and Kent County has not been spared, with deaths from accidental drug overdose surpassing automobile accidents.” Every overdose fatality is highly preventable, however. One of the strategies for harm reduction is the use of Naloxone (Narcan®), which is a prescription medication that can safely and effectively reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. As of 2015, over 1,000 individuals in Grand Rapids have been trained to use Naloxone, leading to more than 200 lives saved.
Even though a person can not overdose on cannabis, its use still carries a similar stigma to IV drug and narcotic use, as well as HIV positive status. The dictionary defines stigma as an indelible mark or a stain, and the term is usually applied to something that makes a person unacceptable in other people’s eyes. Stigma is different from not liking a particular behavior because it‘s not necessarily associated to the particular actions of an individual. It’s what is assumed about ‘someone like that’. Such stigma often leads to prejudice and active discrimination. The GR Red Project fights such stigma and prejudice daily.
The GR Red Project is a non-profit organization, which means they run on donations, grants and fundraisers. Their next fundraiser is Dining Out for Life, which takes place this Thursday 4/30/15, at various restaurants around Grand Rapids. According to their website, this event raises thousands of dollars to support local, life-saving HIV prevention services. Dining Out For Life is a super easy and fun way to support this life-saving program. Participating restaurants in the Grand Rapids area will donate a percentage of your bill on Thurs, April 30th, 2015 to The GR Red Project.
In May, the Well House and the GR Red Project will present an interview with Ethan Nadelmann: Founder and Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance & Major Neill Franklin: Executive Director of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), moderated by State Representative Jeff Irwin. Nadelmann is described by Rolling Stone as “the point man” for drug policy reform efforts. He is widely regarded as the outstanding proponent of drug policy reform both in the United States and abroad.
Over his 33-year career, Neill Franklin watched hardworking and dedicated fellow cops die in the line of fire enforcing policies that don’t do any good. After 23 years with the Maryland State Police, including as an undercover narc and as the head trainer for drug enforcement, Neill was recruited by the Baltimore Police Department to reorganize its education and training division. He now leads LEAP as the organization’s executive director.
Drug overdose deaths in Kent County rose 450 percent in the past 20 years.
1994 – 17
2013 – 77
2014 – So far, data shows 67 drug overdose deaths (12 autopsy cases are still pending). In ¾ of the cases, the drug of first mention was an opiate:
- Opiates – 49
- Narcotic analgesic (prescription painkillers) – 24
- Heroin – 16
- Methadone (also narcotic analgesic) – 9
- Other drugs – 18
- Anti-depressant – 4
- Cocaine – 3
- Anti-psychotic – 3
- Alcohol – 1
- Other – 7
SOURCE – Kent County Medical Examiner’s Office
Ways you can help:
– Visit the Grand Rapids Red Project online to find out more about them.
– Donate to the Red Project by clicking on the donate button on their home page.
– Sign up to be a volunteer in the office or at one of the mobile clinics by contacting Steve Alsum.
– Like them on Facebook.
– Follow @RedProjectGR on Twitter.