‘Love in the Time of Fentanyl’: Harm reduction advocates host panel, movie in Chehalis

Providers battling opioid crisis say politics, stigma are hurdles


According to the National Library of Medicine, harm reduction during the HIV/AIDS epidemic took the form of condoms.

The theory today, while still controversial, is the same.

Now, “harm reduction” mostly refers to a strategy of reducing risk of death or disease for people with substance abuse problems. If given clean syringes, people who aren’t practicing abstinence are less likely to contract and spread disease. By providing communities with Narcan, the brand name for the opioid-reversing medication naloxone, people are less likely to die.

In Lewis County, drug-related deaths recently surpassed any previous year on record. Local law enforcement agencies report seeing increased prevalence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s 50 times stronger than heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Nineteen of the 38 fatal overdoses in Lewis County this year have been due to fentanyl. 

Harm reduction remains controversial, local service providers said in a Monday night panel. 

McFiler’s Chehalis Theater showed an hour and 25-minute KCTS9 piece on a Vancouver, Canada, based “safe injection site” nonprofit, the Overdose Prevention Society. 

The film, titled “Love in the Time of Fentanyl,” follows the group, including Ronnie Griggs, who, in 2022, had worked in harm reduction in Vancouver for 10 years. In a handful of years, he said, 130 of his friends died from overdoses. Griggs was a panelist at Monday’s event.

The goal of the film, as stated by KCTS9, is to “look beyond the stigma” into the lives of a group of people volunteering their time to save lives.

Lewis County doesn’t have a safe injection site, but local harm reduction service providers report navigating the same rocky political and moral landscape.

On Monday’s panel was Cole Meckle, pastor of Gather Church in Centralia, which runs various services for people who are impoverished, homeless or struggling with addiction. Among those are various harm reduction programs.

Meckle said he would have liked the film to include voices of people who disagreed with the nonprofit, saying, “We’ve got to have those hard conversations. We have to.”

And those conversations should not be done under the threat of losing funding for programs, he said. 

“Engage these discussions about what we do, because obviously, people care about taking care of people. And they have to get on the same page,” Meckle said.

Another Gather Church service is a “meds first” clinic, run by Brook Reder, one of Monday night’s panelists.

The clinic provides people with suboxone, a medication that lessens withdrawal symptoms and lowers the risk of overdose death by opioids. As someone with lived experience, Reder said, she knows people struggling with addiction will sooner listen to her than they will to police officers.

“Or, someone who can sit down in the dirt with me and love me where I’m at. Right there, in that moment. That’s what’s going to get through to me,” Reder said. “That’s what’s going to save my life.”

Partnership, Reder said, is necessary. Having mental health professionals accompany law enforcement, for example, could help both parties navigate crises. Conversely, stigma, Reder said, keeps people from seeing the full scale of addiction in their own neighborhoods. In a previous story by The Chronicle, she recalled using heroin and meth for five years while homeless in the Twin Cities.

“It’s not a class thing anymore,” Reder said. “It’s affecting our schools. It’s affecting our kids.”

Katie Strozyk, the opioid response coordinator for Thurston County Public Health and Social Services, another panelist on Monday, agreed that the way forward is to create partnerships between law enforcement and service providers. That often means having tough conversations, she said.

“Having just been with Lewis County police chiefs last week, one of the ways to start the conversation moving forward is literally fact-based,” Strozyk said. “It’s talking about the difference in brain chemistry. It's talking about how you administer naloxone successfully. It's talking about how we have an unregulated drug supply and that's why we're facing what we're facing. And when you have indisputable facts to move forward on, it's really easy to have partnerships with different people. And when you let stigma get in the way, that's when you start to be divided, when you move forward.”

Anyone of any age can legally carry and administer naloxone, often labeled under the brand name Narcan, a nasal spray that can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. It’s available over the counter in pharmacies across the nation and can often be obtained at no cost through mail programs. 

Visit https://stopoverdose.org to find naloxone in Washington. 

Learn more about the medication, substance use disorders and other services available to residents at https://doh.wa.gov/you-and-your-family/drug-user-health.

Before the updated total from Tuesday, the coroner’s office had tallied 580 total death in Lewis County this year, including two with undetermined causes, five homicides, five with pending tests, 15 suicides and 38 accidentals.