Nestled deep inside the Bible Belt, Tennessee is big on tradition and conservative values. As you might imagine, harm reduction — reducing harm done to and experienced by drug users — isn’t very big here.
Here’s a good rule of thumb — the more left-leaning a state is, the more likely existing harm reduction infrastructure can be found there (e.g., California, New York). Places like Tennessee don’t have much in place; we’ve got at least six state-recognized Syringe Services Programs, at least one county health department-run syringe disposal program, and 21 Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists (ROPS).
ROPS are employed by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services to hold regular naloxone trainings and distribute the life-saving drug. Although the Volunteer State certainly isn’t the only government to employ people acting in such roles, Tennessee is unique in its use of “Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists” as a title.
The Background of ROPS
In late 2017, the Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services released its “TN Save a Life Program.” Ostensibly, this four-pronged program was rolled out due to the rash of opioid use and resulting opioid-related deaths that initially broke out some 10 to 15 years prior.
The TN Save a Life Program was designed to deal with fallout from the opioid epidemic and consists of the following components:
- The so-called “Project ECHO,” a project with Vanderbilt University touting the end goal of helping clinics, hospitals, and emergency rooms beef up access to medication-assisted treatment programs, a.k.a. opioid replacement therapy, through the provision of telemedicine services.
- The creation of “regionally-specific resource guides.”
- The staffing of 20 “Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists” throughout 13 regions within the Volunteer State. These people hailed from a variety of backgrounds, including “recovery, paramedics, and Certified Peer Recovery Specialists,” taken directly from the DMHSAS’s website. Now, there are 21 ROPS.
- A state-wide media campaign.
Who Do ROPS Serve?
This comes from the same website mentioned above: ROPS primarily tend to first responders, entities that provide treatment and recovery services or community-oriented resources, and people considered at risk of overdose — including their family members and friends.
These aren’t the only beneficiaries of ROPS — “all interested community members” can be trained in responding to opioid overdose with naloxone.
Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists hold training sessions across the region they’re assigned to. There are 13 regions in terms of ROPS distribution. Northwest Tennessee, a nine-county area home to 254,000 people, is labeled Region 6N.
What Do Trainings Consist of?
Just as there are three primary audiences, there are three main topics that ROPS’ training events cover:
- Raising public awareness for facts about the opioid crisis and the trends that currently define it, how addition works, and best practices for administering naloxone.
- Attempting to nip drug-related stigma in the bud.
- Spreading knowledge of harm reduction, why it’s important, and defining what the practice consists of.
A Real-World Example of a Regional Overdose Prevention Specialist
Melesa Lassiter has served as Region 6N’s Regional Overdose Prevention Specialist since Oct. 2017. She’s part of the Weakley County Prevention Coalition (WCPC), which oversees her role as ROPS.
Although WCPC engages in prevention-based drug use efforts, thanks to Ms. Lassiter’s status as ROPS, she stands out as one of the only prevention coalition employees in Northwest Tennessee to be active in harm reduction — even though naloxone distribution is the lowest-hanging fruit on the harm reduction tree, we very well can consider it “harm reduction.”
Via a local public housing authority office, Martin Housing Authority, name-brand Narcan is made available for pickup. She also holds naloxone training events, including specialized sessions designed just for law enforcement, among other intended audiences.
By no means are these all the things ROPS engage in, though everything mentioned here collectively acts as the meat-and-potatoes of their job duties. What each individual Regional Overdose Prevention Specialist does will vary based on the organizations that oversee their duties for the state.
Ms. Lassiter, for example, may be more likely than the average ROPS to carry out prevention-based programming at local schools — such messaging is a major focus of local prevention coalitions like Weakley County Prevention Coalition.
Note: Lassiter is unquestionably one of Tennessee’s best ROPS, which I can certifiably say even though I’ve only dealt with four of them — the four who represent rural West Tennessee, that is. She’s made great strides to reach people actually at risk of opioid overdose and her extraordinary efforts deserve recognition.
In Full Disclosure — Do ROPS Fall Short of Their Intended Goals?
Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists, due to the town hall-style nature of their trainings, often fail to reach the most disadvantaged regular drug users (e.g., injection opioid users). This isn’t to say they completely fail to train these people or meet them where they’re at with naloxone, though. As ROPS continue to make a name for themselves across the Volunteer State, more injection opioid users, for example, will come to perceive these state-sanctioned harm reductionists as legitimate and worthwhile.
Much like anywhere, people here — especially long-term, often-problematic drug users like me — exhibit discretion in assessing new or otherwise-too-good-to-be-true opportunities. I think the average level of discretion exhibited by the most disadvantaged drug user here in rural West Tennessee is higher than average, nationally-speaking, that is.
People can be surprisingly unwilling to open themselves up to offers of free safe drug use supplies. One time, I visited an area of West Tennessee that was populated by a relative fuckton of people experiencing homelessness — Jackson, where I live now; it’s the second-largest city in the region — only to have my help refused by all but one person despite the fact I injected heroin in front of them!
Here in rural West Tennessee, for example, the overwhelming majority of locals who’ve received syringes, naloxone, and other harm reduction supplies from me weren’t aware of ROPS when I first met them — since then, little has changed.
The most disadvantaged people who use drugs — those who are cordoned off from society — are unlikely to trust opportunities like opioid overdose response training or free naloxone because people here aren’t used to having others provide them safe drug use supplies. This is further exacerbated by the fact that most ROPS don’t have hands-on experience with using, let alone injecting, illicit opioids — especially during the unprecedented fentanyl poisoning crisis we’re in today. With such a blatant lack of lived experience, Tennessee’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services effectively limits the reach and efficacy of their Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists. People who have extensive experience using illicit opioids in the heyday of fentanyl — not just people who used to use drugs or who haven’t really used drugs and are just interested in helping us — should be employed as ROPS.
In places like rural West and Middle Tennessee, where there’s little interest in drug user advocacy, activating drug users, illicit drug retailers, and laypeople alike as grassroots harm reductionists is arguably our best tool.
All considered, Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists are a valuable resource in improving the treatment of drug users. Although they only pluck the harm reduction tree’s lowest-hanging fruit — naloxone distribution and training — I think we’ll look back at ROPS as being pioneers of modern-day harm reduction here in the Volunteer State.