An interfaith memorial service for the 1,250 Rhode Islanders who have died of opioid overdose in the last five years was held Thursday at the First Baptist Church in America in Providence. The service was a collaboration of clergy, the St. Matthias Ministry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence and a group known as FIRE, which stands for Faith Infused Recovery Efforts. Besides music and prayer, speakers including personal family stories of the affliction of addiction.

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A jarring comment at the close of the June 14 Governor’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force meeting challenged the way that strategies are being implemented, and whether they benefit the people seeking treatment and recovery
PHOTO BY RICHARD ASINOF Gov. Gina Raimondo talks at the opening of the new Lifespan Recovery Center on June 19, as Dr. Timothy Babineau, president and CEO of Lifespan, listens attentively.

Despite the best efforts of the Governor’s Task Force, people keep dying at an alarming rate in Rhode Island from overdose deaths. What has not yet made it onto the agenda of the Task Force and into the public conversation are harm reduction strategies to save lives. At the opening of the new Lifespan Recovery Center, the senior vice president of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health said that the only thing he knew about safe injection sites is what he had read in the newspaper.

Why are harm reduction strategies not at the top of the agenda of the Governor’s Task Force, if the goal is to save lives? How can the recovery community make its voice heard, both at the Task Force in devising strategy, and in the larger public conversation? Will R.I. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin be willing to explore potential legal action against the Purdue Pharma division in Cumberland, seeking to recover the costs of public funds spent on treating patients with substance use disorders caused by prescription painkillers? Will the U.S. Senate be able to muster 50 votes needed to pass the Republican version of Trumpcare to repeal and replace Obamacare, or will Republican Senators be willing to stand up and say no to Sen. Mitch McConnell?

As more and more evidence mounts about the links between the economic disenfranchisement and the disease of despair – deaths from alcohol, suicide and drugs, the question remains how to have a public conversation about the issues that does not feature clinical experts talking at the audience. Recent research looking at the numbers form the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the numbers of deaths from 2010 to 2014 found that for the demographic of young white adults, male and female, between the ages of 25-34, Rhode Island led the nation with the highest rate of deaths caused by suicide, alcohol and drugs, at 59.8 percent.