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Marking Hawai'i Overdose Awareness Day at the State Capitol

HHHRC invited members of the community and policymakers to the state capitol on the afternoon of August 31 to mark International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD). The public health day began in 2001 in Melbourne, Australia, to raise awareness and commemorate those who have been lost to drug overdose. The event included sign waving on the Beretania side of the capitol building and a program at the rotunda.

The theme of this year’s IOAD was “Recognizing Those People Who Go Unseen,” acknowledging those in our communities who are not visible in public discussions of the opioid crisis.

Governor Josh Green proclaimed August 31 “Hawaiʻi Overdose Awareness Day,” noting the state’s ongoing efforts through the Hawaiʻi Opioid Initiative, which began in 2017, and its action plan to aggressively counteract the increased misuse of opioids.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi delivered a brief statement noting that his family has encountered two overdoses and offered words of empathy and support to those in attendance. He also committed to working to reduce the number of overdoses in the county and moving toward zero. Hawaiʻi saw a record number of reported overdose deaths last year (321). Mayor Blangiardi also expressed dismay at the scope of the overdose problem across the U.S., with over 107,000 reported overdose deaths in 2022.

Senate Health & Human Services Chair Sen. Joy San Buenaventura addressed her longstanding commitment to reducing overdoses and other needed drug policy reform efforts. Earlier this year, her bill to exempt fentanyl test strips was signed into law. A prior version of the bill would have exempted all drug-checking equipment, including reagents and spectrometers used by harm reduction organizations on the continent. Sen. San Buenaventura also introduced a 2017 measure that removed felony criminal penalties from the simple possession of drug paraphernalia. However, unusable traces and residue can still result in felony charges and long periods of criminal legal system involvement.

HHHRC Board Member Rep. Adrian Tam delivered brief remarks, which noted the negative impacts of the continued criminalization of substance use. Rep. Jenna Takenouchi, Vice-Chair of the House Health & Homelessness Committee, also joined the event, as did Rep. Rachele Lamosao and Rep. Darius Kila.

HHHRC Executive Director Heather Lusk and Syringe Exchange Program (SEP) Manager Josh Derrig also delivered brief statements. Lusk also served as emcee of the program.

Former SEP outreach worker Paij Britt-Emmanuel presented her lived experience with encountering overdose, including a heartfelt acknowledgement of the recent passing of a friend.

Honolulu Councilmember Tyler Dos Santos-Tam was also present. Honolulu County recently required bars, clubs, and other commercial establishments selling alcoholic beverages for on-site consumption to carry naloxone, the first law of its kind in the nation. Councilmember Dos Santos-Tam and HHHRC Development & Marketing Director Andrew Ogata were featured in a Hawaiʻi News Now story that followed them as they delivered nasal naloxone (Narcan) to bars in Chinatown.

Public health advocates hope that a portion of the state and county shares of the $78 million in opioid settlement funds over the next decade will be used to support overdose prevention efforts and increased access to behavioral health treatment services.

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