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The White House has a strategy for reducing drug overdose deaths

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Drug overdose deaths are at a record high - more than a hundred thousand in a single year. The Biden administration is out today with a plan to slow that epidemic by emphasizing harm reduction. Reporter Martha Bebinger of WBUR joined us earlier to explain what that means.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: A, harm reduction includes all of the tools that help drug users stay alive. That's naloxone, the drug you can squirt into someone's nostril if they overdose to revive them. It's also syringe exchange programs to limit the sharing of needles and the spread of infection. It's fentanyl test strips so drug users can find out if this deadly opioid is in the drug that they're about to inject or snort. It's a lot of tools that critics claim enable drug use.

MARTINEZ: All right, so then why is the White House prioritizing this?

BEBINGER: Well, because these tools do save lives. The people who advocate for harm reduction stress you can't treat someone after they've died of a fatal overdose. And White House drug czar Dr. Rahul Gupta insists that harm reduction is an approach that can cut across ideological lines.

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RAHUL GUPTA: This is not a red state issue or a blue state issue. This is America's issue.

BEBINGER: And Dr. Gupta stresses a recent bipartisan congressional report that did recommend adoption of more harm reduction strategies when he was explaining the Biden administration's plan to, as he says, beat the overdose epidemic.

MARTINEZ: Got to be clear - this is a federal plan, but access to harm reduction efforts varies a lot from state to state.

BEBINGER: Yeah, that's true. There are states that right now restrict access to naloxone, and you've probably seen some of the stories about needle exchange programs closing in some cities and towns around the country. That's even happening in states like West Virginia that have the highest rate of overdose deaths in the country. Robin Pollini is an associate professor at West Virginia University. She studies injection drug use and harm reduction efforts.

ROBIN POLLINI: Whether you have access to these services largely depends on where you live.

BEBINGER: And Pollini says there are still federal obstacles, too, like a federal ban on paying for syringes distributed to drug users. And that's going to make expanding needle exchange programs more difficult.

MARTINEZ: Martha, what else is in the Biden administration's plan?

BEBINGER: The White House says harm reduction is only part of a larger effort to tackle the two drivers of the overdose crisis - a lack of treatment and drug trafficking. So the other elements include a call to double the number of people in treatment with a focus on people leaving prisons or jails or those who don't have stable housing. Those are some of the people most at risk. Then, to slow the drug supply, the Biden administration is proposing sanctions on drug traffickers, tighter border controls and more international cooperation. The Biden plan also spells out the need for better real-time data on who is most at risk for an overdose. Now, all of these proposals will be sent to Congress today for debate and review.

MARTINEZ: That's Martha Bebinger of WBUR. Martha, thanks.

BEBINGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.