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Thursday, August 2, 2018

How Coders, Not Drug Warriors, Are Preventing Opioid Overdoses and Saving Lives

When a friend's overdose brought the opioid crisis home for coder Mike LeGrand, he and his students created an app to do what government couldn't.

Unless you have been impacted by it personally, the opioid crisis may seem like nothing more than a detached statistic. But for those who have watched loved ones lose their battles with addiction, the opioid crisis is all too real. And instead of surrendering to the despair that is all too easy to feel in such a dire situation, one Baltimore resident is using his friend’s overdose as a catalyst to save lives through coding.

Baltimore’s Opioid Crisis

The city of Baltimore is no stranger to the opioid epidemic. The media has dubbed it “ground zero” of the growing crisis, as the region has been hit particularly hard when it comes to drug use and addiction. In 2017, opioid-related substances killed 523 Baltimoreans. This was a dramatic increase from the 192 opioid-related deaths that occurred within the city just three years prior in 2014.

Baltimore’s health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen, commented on the seriousness of this situation, saying, “A couple weeks ago there was a spike of 20 overdoses in one area within a few hours.”

Unfortunately, the rise in overdoses in this region is due largely to the presence of fentanyl in batches of locally distributed heroin. Fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid and many users are often unaware when they have purchased heroin containing the substance. Since users do not realize that they are using fentanyl, its potency is not taken into account. And since they assume that they are using typical street-grade heroin, they inject their normal amount, not realizing that fentanyl has turned a “regular” dose into a lethal one.

Wen commented on the fentanyl problem, saying:

People are using fentanyl without realizing it. Fentanyl is getting mixed in with heroin, cocaine, prescription drugs. They’re overdosing and dying without realizing what they’re taking.

This is precisely what happened to a close friend of Baltimore game developer Mike LeGrand. LeGrand watched his friend struggle with addiction throughout the course of their friendship. But about a year ago, his friend lost her battle after overdosing on heroin that had been laced with carfentanil. Carfentanil is an extremely potent form of fentanyl that is 5,000 times stronger than typical heroin, making it easy to overdose on the substance.

The passing of his friend personified the opioid crisis in a way LeGrand had not anticipated. He was resolved to do whatever he could to prevent drug overdoses around the city.

Private Coders to the Rescue

In response to the rising use of opiates around the city, Baltimore officials took measures to show the public that it was serious about combating the crisis. But however good the intentions may have been, governments are inherently ill-equipped to handle this problem. For starters, the drug war has turned addicts into criminals, putting them at odds with state officials. Building trust becomes exceedingly difficult if jail time is always on the table. And for those engaging in illegal drug use on a regular basis, attending a city-run course on overdose prevention may not appeal to you.

Where the state has failed to adequately address this issue, the private sector is offering substantial solutions.

On the federal government’s end, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has demonstrated a clear lack of understanding on the issue, routinely calling for a doubling down on the War on Drugs as a viable solution to the problem. However, after almost five decades of federal drug prohibition, the situation has grown worse, not better. It has also helped to create a stigma regarding drug use, as it has become associated with crime rather than being looked at as a vice for those struggling to deal with past traumas and mental health issues. Sessions has also continued to demonize marijuana, even though the plant has already proven itself to be a useful tool in helping to ease addicts off of opiates. But where the state has failed to adequately address this issue, the private sector is offering substantial solutions.

In addition to the creation of an overdose prevention task force, Baltimore also set up an alert system to notify health care professionals when overdoses spiked in a given area. This information was then used to target neighborhoods where bad batches of heroin were being sold so that doctors could warn users to steer clear.

But since this information was only sent to medical professionals rather than the actual users, it did little to curb overdoses throughout the city. Those who needed the information most were not receiving it. However, upon discovering the city’s email alert system, LeGrand was inspired to expand the concept. “It got me thinking,” he said. “If there are batches of heroin that are killing large groups of people, shouldn’t there be a way to alert them so they know and don’t die?”

In addition to saving lives, the launch of Bad Batch has given purpose to its young creators.

And since his expertise is in code, he knew exactly how to turn his vision into a reality. LeGrand and his wife run a nonprofit called Coding in the Schools, where they teach students to code. After enlisting help from five of his students, he created an app that analyzed the local paramedic data in order to determine which areas of Baltimore were being inflicted with bad batches of heroin. Each day, the data is analyzed and users are alerted if their area experiences a spike in overdoses.

Since many drug users are hesitant to sign up for a service that may land them on some sort of list, LeGrand made sure that his Bad Batch app is completely anonymous for users. All someone needs to do is send a text message to the number provided and, similar to an Amber Alert, you will begin receiving text message alerts on your phone. Bad Batch also provides users with a list of resources around the city, like needle exchange vans or addiction recovery resources.

And in addition to saving lives, the launch of Bad Batch has given purpose to its young creators, who accidentally stumbled upon the world of coding.

The Bad Batch Boys

David Gatewood and Davon Harris had never planned on becoming coders, and they certainly never planned on saving lives. As students, the 18-year-olds had met LeGrand through one of his coding camps and from that point on, their lives had found a sense of purpose.

“A lot of us had barely any background in computer science,” Gatewood said. “In the neighborhoods I’ve lived in, not a lot of people are interested in coding. I never thought I could be a part of something like this.”

Bad Batch takes a realistic approach to the opioid problem by meeting those suffering on their level.

While neither boy is personally connected to the opioid crisis, their coding abilities have helped to prevent overdoses within their own communities. Together with LeGrand and the rest of their team, the coders worked closely with addicts to better understand their needs. This, in turn, brought a newfound sense of empathy for all parties involved.

Bad Batch takes a realistic approach to the opioid problem by meeting those suffering on their level, rather than setting far-fetched expectations. The creators are not naive enough to assume that people are going to quit the substance overnight by simply signing up for the app. But instead of viewing those struggling with addiction as aimless “junkies” with little regard for their own self-preservation, the creators now understand that these users are not all armed with a deathwish. And their overall goal is to help educate users so that they can live to fight another day.

Harris commented:

No one wants to die. You still make your own decisions. We’re trying to help this not be your last decision.

By providing users with the information they need to avoid lethal batches of heroin, the “Bad Batch Boys” as they have been called by local media outlets, are building trust within their communities. And if a user someday decides they are ready for help, they know that Bad Batch is there to provide resources.

Wen has praised Bad Batch’s efforts, specifically for helping in ways that the government cannot. She said:

We at the Baltimore City Health Department realize that we can’t solve all these issues by ourselves and that we need the collaboration of nonprofits and the private sector.

So far, 100 people have signed up to use Bad Batch and LeGrand is often out on the streets of Baltimore informing as many people about the app as possible.

  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.