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'Drug use should not be a death sentence:' Duluth community gathers to honor those lost to overdose

Over 1,008 Minnesota residents died due to drug overdose in 2020.

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Alicia Byrd of Duluth hugs Royal Clater of Duluth during a vigil with live music, food, community speakers and other resources for Overdose Awareness Day in Lincoln Park on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Duluth. Sober Squad, Harm Reduction Sisters, Vivent Health and Recovery Alliance Duluth were organizations that hosted the event. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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Around 40-50 people gathered in Lincoln Park Tuesday evening to both honor those who have been lost to overdose in the past year as well as to kick off National Recovery Month.

"August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day, so we're here having a vigil to honor those we've lost and to help clear the stigma and educate people about how to prevent overdose," said Harriet Chambers, the event organizer with Sober Squad, a group of people supporting each other through recovery. "We need to think about addicts as human beings."

Earlier in the day, Mayor Emily Larson issued a proclamation in honor of International Overdose Awareness Day where she stated Duluth has had "198 individuals experiencing overdose, with 20 of the overdoses resulting in loss of life."

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Alicia Byrd of Duluth creates a purple handprint with paint on a canvas during a vigil with live music, food, community speakers and other resources for Overdose Awareness Day in Lincoln Park on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Duluth. Sober Squad, Harm Reduction Sisters, Vivent Health and Recovery Alliance Duluth were organizations that hosted the event. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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According to the Minnesota Department of Health, 1,008 Minnesota residents died of a drug overdose in 2020.

"I've lost many friends to overdose," Chambers said. "To know that there was something we could have done hurts me to my core. So many times these lives are gone in silence. You don't know they're gone until you just don't see them the next day. There's such a severe stigma associated with drug use that we don't find out about it until it's too late."

On Tuesday, those gathered shared stories about their experiences with overdose and recovery. Duluth Police Department's Jess Nickila, coordinator of the substance use response team, shared the story of her and her father's recovery. Both she and her father used opioids a little over a decade ago.

"I watched my dad fade away," Nickila said. "I witnessed the second wave of the opioid epidemic in my house. My dad went from getting prescriptions for OxyContin and Percocet to the illegal forms. I watched him fade while the war on drugs grew outside my window."

She's been in long-term recovery since 2011 and her father hasn't used opioids in the past decade. Since recovery, she's dedicated her life to helping others recover. She joined the Duluth Police Department in 2018 as the opioid program technician. Her job was to reach out to overdose survivors to provide them access to services. The basis of the program is focused on peer recovery.

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Jess Nickila, lead peer recovery specialist, at the Duluth Police Department speaks during a vigil with live music, food, community speakers and other resources for Overdose Awareness Day in Lincoln Park on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Duluth. Sober Squad, Harm Reduction Sisters, Vivent Health and Recovery Alliance Duluth were organizations that hosted the event. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"Peer recovery saved my life," Nickila said. "It took me seeing someone in recovery to fully understand that recovery is possible."

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Nickila also gave an update on the DPD's addiction recovery program. The team has grown exponentially in her time, due to federal grants.

"So yes, I want to say that Duluth is taking real strides to address the opioid epidemic and substance use disorder in our community. But unfortunately, it still isn't enough," Nickila said.

Another organization working to reduce harm from drug use in the community is Harm Reduction Sisters. Organizer Sue Purchase has been working in harm reduction in various communities since 1996 and in Duluth for the past two years.

"We provide syringe services, Narcan distribution and education," Purchase said. "Necessary and needed supplies to prevent HIV, endocarditis, Hepatitis C and other public health issues related to drug use."

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Sue Purchase, executive director of Harm Reduction Sisters, speaks during a vigil with live music, food, community speakers and other resources for Overdose Awareness Day in Lincoln Park on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Duluth. Sober Squad, Harm Reduction Sisters, Vivent Health and Recovery Alliance Duluth were organizations that hosted the event. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Purchase and her team deliver clean syringes to cities across northern Minnesota. She said her services come with no questions asked, no identification info required and no judgements.

"Drug use should not be a death sentence," Purchase said. "We need to see people use drugs as just that — people."

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With every syringe delivery, Purchase also provides her clients with doses of Narcan to be administered in case of an overdose.

"I make them take it, even if they claim they don't use opioids. It's better to have it and not need it than to not have it when you're starting to OD," Purchase said. "These are preventable deaths and more needs to be done to make sure people are informed and given the supplies they need."

During the event, biodegradable balloons were released in honor of those who lost their lives to overdose.

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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