One Woman's Controversial Mission to Help Drug Addicts

Louise Vincent focuses on 'harm reduction' approach instead of abstinence
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 20, 2023 11:40 AM CST
One Woman's Controversial Mission to Help Drug Addicts
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/Sanny11)

One way to help addicts off of drugs is to get them to quit cold turkey, an approach favored by many US politicians as they push for legislation and tougher prison sentences to combat the emergence of such drugs as fentanyl and xylazine (aka "tranq," or "zombie dope"). One North Carolina woman, however, is advocating for a different, more controversial approach. "We've had the real push for abstinence for how many years now?" Louise Vincent, an addict herself, asks NPR. "And where have we gotten?" Instead, Vincent has become a vocal advocate for humanizing drug users, including by taking the focus off of getting them clean if they're not quite ready.

Vincent, who founded the Urban Survivors Union, says the concept of "harm reduction" has the potential to be more helpful. That theory seeks to help drug users not necessarily get off drugs, but reduce their risk of dying, via distribution of clean syringes and fentanyl detection kits, or even just a safe place to sleep, per a 2021 article in the New York Times. Vincent, 47, speaks from a place of experience: Her daughter died in 2016 at age 19 of a heroin OD, at an inpatient treatment facility that didn't have available naloxone, which can reverse overdoses. Vincent herself has been mired in opioid addiction tied to her struggle with bipolar disorder, with an accidental use of xylazine a few years ago that has left her dealing with consequences to this day.

"It has eaten the skin off my entire arm," she tells NPR. "I can't even talk about it without crying." Vincent now lobbies against the criminalizing of drug users, instead pushing for more affordable addiction treatments like methadone, as well as access to basic health care, housing, and counseling. While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle "are moving in the opposite direction" (ie, more punitive measures), per NPR, drug policy experts and groups like the American Medical Association and American Society of Addiction Medicine agree with Vincent that the current abstinence-focused approach isn't working. Vincent knows it's an uphill battle, but says she'll keep fighting it, even if she has to open up illegal spaces for drug users. "I believe that people who use drugs deserve to be treated with dignity and respect," she says. (More here.)

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