Too many people in Sadie Dupuis' life have fallen victim to drug overdoses.
The frontwoman for indie rock band Speedy Ortiz says she has regularly lost one friend each year - and sometimes as many as multiple friends in a month. The most recent loss came in February 2019. “I was feeling so terrible about it,” she says of her friend’s passing. “I was so sad that there are these friends who I had no idea were using, and I’ll never get them back again.”
This death proved to be a turning point for Dupuis, who decided then and there to start carrying Narcan on tour with Speedy Ortiz. Narcan, a nasal spray version of naloxone, essentially reverses the effects of an opiate overdose. More than 47,000 opioid deaths occurred in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and for musicians like Dupuis, those losses hit close to home -- which is why some are following Dupuis’ lead by taking Narcan on the road with them.
Naloxone was first patented in the 1960s to counteract overdoses, but it was initially only used in emergency departments and inpatient settings by medical professionals. Starting in the late ’90s, more community programs began to provide the public with naloxone trainings and kits. According to the CDC, more than 26,000 opioid overdoses have been reversed by non-medical personnel using naloxone. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the nasal spray version of naloxone, Narcan, in 2015. Each kit contains two pre-measured doses that can be administered by anyone.
Thanks to her insurance, Dupuis, who lives in Philadelphia, was able to get the kit for free in five minutes at her local CVS. Major U.S. drug stores first began stocking Narcan in late 2017, and most states no longer require a prescription. Many insurances, including Medicaid, cover the majority or all of the $150 cost, a potentially prohibitive price for those without insurance.
“I’m sick of losing friends,” Dupuis says. “I’ve never been in a position to prevent an overdose, but no one ever expects to be. It’s such an easy thing to carry that could save a life. If you have that option, I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to.” In addition to keeping the nasal spray on hand at events, Speedy Ortiz has been raising money on its recent tours for the Harm Reduction Coalition, an advocacy organization that works to minimize the destructive effects of drug use in communities across America.
Baltimore-based punk band War on Women has also resolved to bring Narcan on its future tours, says frontwoman Shawna Potter. The group has already been involved in other harm reduction efforts, such as hosting HIV testing in a mobile health van outside of shows. Potter got the idea from Speedy Ortiz, and while she's unaware of other bands stocking Narcan at shows, she hopes that the idea spreads across her scene.
“It is important to us and still has taken us this long to realize we really do have the power,” says Potter. “We have power in this situation. We can make a difference if something happens on our watch.”
To Potter’s knowledge, there haven’t been any overdoses at any War on Women concerts in the past, but she doesn’t want to be in a position in which they’re not prepared. “The more I learn about the opioid crisis and the callousness to which these large companies created these addictions – it just makes it so apparent that we have to do something,” she says. “We have to prevent these needless deaths.”
Meanwhile, some bars and venues are also recognizing and responding to the opioid crisis by stocking up on Narcan. Grey Read manages and books shows for the Baltimore punk and hardcore venue Sidebar, and after hosting a Narcan training class a few years ago, Sidebar now keeps the antidote on site at all times.
“It’s peace of mind,” he says. “Everybody on staff knows where the Narcan is. We keep it in a first aid kit underneath the bar in case something happens.”
Read himself is also a musician, and extends his harm reduction efforts from the bar to his band, Syringe, by bringing fentanyl testing strips on tour. Audience members can use these test strips to check to see if their drugs have been tainted with the powerful fentanyl. Although fentanyl comes in prescription drug form, it is also made synthetically and can be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Some drug dealers cut other drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, with fentanyl as a way to cheaply produce a powerful high, which has led to a sharp increase in fentanyl-related deaths in the past three years, according to the CDC.
“Harm reduction is something I really believe in,” Read says. “With friends dying, the best way to deal with it is just to make sure that if something bad happens, you have the response for it.”
On a larger scale, musician Scott Boyink has recently been stocking several of Detroit’s venues with Narcan. A recovering alcoholic and current peer recovery coach, Boyink knows the destruction that addiction can wreak, and has personally witnessed how much the opioid crisis has devastated his city in recent years.
“I lost some people whose music I’ll never be able to hear again,” he says. “It’s painful.”
A drummer for punk band Steve Harvey Oswald, Boyink knew how to raise money for naloxone: He threw a series of fundraising shows, eventually raising hundreds for the cause. He then started hitting local trainings where he could get more Narcan for free. Soon, locals – including an emergency room doctor as well as a nonprofit – heard about his efforts and donated their own kits. When Boyink first started a couple years ago, he was able to stock 20 of Detroit’s venues, and he aspires to one day completely push heroin out of his local music scene.
Boyink has experienced some pushback: Opponents argue that people don’t do heroin in bars. Boyink doesn’t disagree, but he also knows that overdoses don’t occur right away, either, and can set in anywhere from minutes or hours after someone takes drugs. In that time, someone can go to a show and then overdose at the venue. That also means that there is often enough time to intervene in a drug overdose.
Nonetheless, the stigma against drug users and harm reduction efforts, even in progressive music scenes, is still prominent. “People feel that perhaps they’re enabling or condoning drug use,” Dupuis says. “Every night people were hearing about this concept maybe for the first time, and hopefully if anyone needs those resources for themselves or someone else in their family or community, now they have a little bit of information.”
Boyink shares that mindset. “All I’m doing is enabling people to get into recovery another day,” he says. “It’s not my job to judge people. It’s against my job to judge people. Dead friends don’t enter recovery.”