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County hears calls to center voices of people impacted by overdose crisis

Friday, September 9, 2022 by Seth Smalley

Last week, the Travis County Commissioners Court received a monthly update on the opioid overdose crisis, which the county declared a public health emergency in May. A lot of the conversation focused on the testimony of Aaron Ferguson, a local advocate for methadone access, who relayed the events of the community listening session to commissioners as well as his personal experience with substance use.

The crisis was initially declared because of a sharp increase in drug overdose and opioid addiction rates in Travis County. Commissioners have since issued multiple directives to address the problem, including monthly meetings and community listening sessions with harm reductionists, advocates and others who have been impacted by the crisis.

“I am a person who owes my life to the ability to use illicit substances after having survived being born and raised in a religious cult and the trauma that’s associated with that,” Ferguson said. “I would not be reporting to the court today if I did not have access to illicit substances in order to cope with that situation.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to have Aaron speak and to elevate his voice for the community and his perspective so that we can integrate it in our work as we move forward to address the opioid crisis in our community,” said Laura Peveto, division director for county Health and Human Services.

Ferguson pointed out that people who use drugs are underrepresented in public conversations because of the stigma and repercussions that accompany being an “out-of-the-closet” drug user.

“One of the main points we heard was that people who use drugs need to be at the center of the discussion on solutions to the overdose problem,” Ferguson said. “It is not sufficient to ask people who lacked the lived experience of criminalized substance use – who have not been affected by the proliferation of fentanyl and the war on drugs – to propose solutions.”

People at the listening session denounced the criminalization of drug use, saying it stigmatizes “every aspect” of their public lives and prevents them from accessing lifesaving care. Attendees also said that substance use criminalization prevents drug users from accessing employment opportunities and citizenship.

“The lack of these benefits of citizenship has a causal relationship with substance use,” Ferguson said. “Substance use disorder is defined on the basis of social functioning, yet the fact that it is so difficult to function socially with criminalized substance use makes this argument circular and causes anyone engaging in substance use to be at risk of meeting the criteria for a disorder.”

Ferguson said most substance users initially do not qualify for substance user disorder, but social conditions and the criminalization of drug use create those conditions.

“We want to have more listening sessions like this one,” Ferguson said. “We need to make a concerted effort to center the voices of people who are living this and providing solutions to the problem.”

“Thanks for doing the listening sessions. I think those have been really valuable,” Travis County Judge Andy Brown said.

The final listening session will take place in November.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

Photo by Psiĥedelisto, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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