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These Vending Machines Dispense a Different Kind of ‘Life Savers’

UMD Researchers, Nonprofit to Study Perceptions, Impact of Effort to Address D.C.’s Overdose Crisis

By Maryland Today Staff

narcan in a vending machine

The lifesaving overdose reversal drug Narcan is available for free in a vending machine in DuPage County, Ill. UMD researchers are studying the effectiveness of similar vending machines in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The typical vending machine is stocked with Snickers bars, energy drinks and Doritos, all products that deliver a jolt of caffeine, salt or sugar. A new breed of the dispensers could provide a remedy for victims of a drug overdose on the brink of death.

Anne Arundel County, Md., last month joined municipalities around the country that are introducing “harm reduction vending machines,” filled with naloxone—a fast-acting medicine that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose—along with fentanyl test strips, sterile syringes, menstrual supplies, COVID-19 tests and masks, all available for free. The machines are generally installed in areas that have higher than average rates of overdose or unhoused individuals.

Now, two University of Maryland researchers are setting out to study the impacts of three of D.C.’s harm reduction vending machines installed last year, in partnership with the machines’ operator, the nonprofit Honoring Individual Power and Strength (HIPS). It promotes the health, rights and dignity of individuals and communities impacted by sexual exchange or drug use.

The study aims to both assess experiences and perceptions of the machines from the perspective of people who use them as well as community members in the area. A secondary goal is to continue to educate about the potential public health benefits of these interventions. The new study will also involve interviewing neighborhood business owners, residents and other community stakeholders in addition to individuals who use the machines.

“We know in general, from public health evidence, that more naloxone is always a good thing in terms of reducing harm,” said anthropology Associate Professor Andrea López, who is leading the study.

Since D.C. first made the machines available, 150 individuals have enrolled to use them.

To access a D.C. vending machine, individuals are asked to call HIPS at the number listed on them (1.202.779.0486) to get a four-digit participant code. Later, a sample of those individuals will be offered the opportunity to participate in the UMD study, sometime between now and August.

The machine enrollment survey asks about people’s preferred machine location, their demographic information and substance use questions, including their current drug of choice and preferred way of taking that drug.

Greg Midgette, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at UMD, will be responsible for analyzing quantitative data, such as what supplies are most used at each of the locations, and each location’s associated overdose and other drug-related harms.

“This work can inform many communities in search of interventions that lower the barriers to service utilization for people conventional programs in the U.S. often fail to reach,” he said.

The researchers hope to have preliminary results by the end of the year to share with HIPS and D.C.’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, and TB Administration, which provided HIPS with funding to roll out and manage the vending machines.

A bonus benefit of being responsible for the machines is that it gives HIPS staffers a chance to interact with the communities they serve at times they normally wouldn’t.

“The other day, I was at a vending machine, and one guy walked up and was like, ‘Hey, it limits the number of fentanyl test strips, and I need like 30 strips to distribute to my friends because we're getting cocaine that's laced with fentanyl.’ That’s an interaction we wouldn’t normally have been out to have,” said Starr O'Leary, HIPS’ community outreach coordinator.

The vending machines in the study are located at the Michelle Obama Southeast Center of Bread for the City (1640 Marion Barry Ave. SE), the Whitman-Walker-Max Robinson Center (1201 Sycamore Drive SE) and Bread for the City (1525 7th St. NW). HIPS may soon be adding vending machines to other sites in D.C.

“These machines aren’t the be all and end all. If we had our real druthers, we would have 24-hour harm reduction centers and doing things that are going to have an even greater impact,” said Alexandra Bradley, HIPS Outreach and Community Engagement Manager. “But until and unless we can get those things, this is a very good and very important stopgap in terms of access to resources for folks.”



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