Have you ever heard the quote, “Everybody wants to be a cowboy, until it’s time to do cowboy stuff?”
The first time I heard that phrase, I was 9 years old. I had just fallen off of my pretty yellow lesson horse, and my riding instructor was encouraging me to get back on. I was scared. I didn’t trust the horse. I didn’t want to get back on. But it was time to do the cowboy stuff.
I have always interpreted that phrase to mean that everybody likes the idyllic part of the cowboy lifestyle — the campfire songs, the pretty sunsets, the even prettier horses, the freedom of the open range. Those are the welcoming bits of the cowboy lifestyle, and they are easy to love. Not everyone wants to be a cowboy when it’s time to get on the horse after a bad fall, doctor an angry mama cow, or chase down a loose herd at three o’clock in the morning. That’s the true cowboy stuff, and it isn’t always fun.
I think the same can often be said for impactful living. We want to be “good” people. We want to think of ourselves as generous, helpful and caring. We want to believe that we are making our community and our world a better place.
So, we put our offering in the plate on Sunday morning. We drop our old clothes off at Goodwill. We volunteer for a Salvation Army bell ringing shift at Christmas time. Many of us do the easy parts, and then we move on. I know I have. And, although these are still good and impactful gestures, these things do not put us in the trenches where the battles are being fought. They do not require of us the true cowboy stuff.
We are in the midst of a drug crisis. In our community, in our state, and in our country, people are dying at alarming rates. In the United States, it is currently estimated that someone dies of a drug overdose every 11 minutes. Drug overdoses are killing more people every year than car accidents. If you don’t already know someone affected by addiction or overdose, give it some time. The chances are good that you will.
So, what do we do about this? How do we take action? How do we fight back? Most importantly, how to we save lives?
One of the first things we can do is to explore something called harm reduction. Countries all over the world are implementing it and are quickly seeing its benefits. Harm reduction is a set of strategies aimed at reducing the negative consequences of drug use (infection, hepatitis, HIV, death). Today I want to touch on just one component: a syringe exchange program.
The benefit of the SEP program is two-fold: It provides sterile syringes to those who inject drugs and a safe way to dispose of used ones, which reduces infection and the spread of infectious diseases. It also allows for workers to connect people who are injecting drugs with social services, counseling and referrals for drug treatment. For some, it is the first step on the path to sobriety.
Many safe injection sites also offer disease testing and immunizations. Some even provide food, clothing and other necessities to those seeking services. They are a ground-floor way to fight the drug epidemic, and they are incredibly effective.
The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control both advocate the effectiveness and importance of SEP’s and yet, our community lacks one. The reasons why are numerous, but a primary one is that a syringe exchange program requires a strong showing of community support. Many community members are scared that SEPs will encourage more drug use and have a negative impact on the community, but global and national data has shown the opposite to be true.
If we truly want to make a positive impact on our community — if we want to reduce the negative effects of drug use and save lives — we have to be willing to come face to face with those who are dealing with addiction. We have to show up to battle with them, hand in hand, and let them know that we care about their lives, too. We have to dust off our saddles, and welcome the hard work. It is time to do the cowboy stuff.