CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – The number of overdose deaths in the United States hit a record high in 2021, and the impacts are being felt here in the Lowcountry.

One 2017 College of Charleston graduate lost five friends to overdoses. It inspired her to become a substance use disorder counselor.

“That really just changed my entire life,” Hanna Wexler said, reflecting on the loved ones she lost to drug addiction. “People are overdosing left and right, it’s a very real thing.”

Wexler said that one of the biggest problems is access — too much access. It’s not hard to get your hands on drugs, but it is hard to get off of them. She’s advocating for a different approach to combatting overdoses: harm reduction.

“Being safe and proactive about your drug use, testing your drugs for fentanyl, using clean syringes. Just going the extra step to kind of take care of yourself. While you’re already taking the risk of doing drugs, you’re backing it up in knowing that at least these drugs are clean and you’ll wake up tomorrow.”

Hanna Wexler

Nanci Steadman Shipman, founder and executive director of Wake Up Carolina, agreed. She lost her son to an overdose in 2016. Now, she’s dedicated to helping others recover. She said while some find the harm reduction method controversial, it is practical, and when lives are on the line, results are what matter.

“Who doesn’t like it, [are] people who don’t acknowledge that there’s a problem in this town,” Shipman said. “If someone is going to use a substance, then we want to make sure that they’re educated, they’re safe doing it, and they’re aware of the consequences.”

Ella Butler, a special opioid investigator with the Charleston County Coroner’s Office, constantly monitors an online database called ODMAP, which tracks fatal and nonfatal overdoses by location. She said that the real-time information provided by the network of agencies working together on the map is lifesaving.

“If we know that we have a bad batch of fentanyl in this district of Charleston from the data that we have in ODMAP, then we can bring Narcan out there,” Butler explained.

Ultimately, Shipman said that a strong support network is what could turn the tide.

“One they realize that we’re for you, we see you, we care about you, and recognize what it is — that it’s not a moral failing or any of those other things — things start changing.”

Nanci Steadman Shipman