According to the Pima County Medical Examiners Office, there were 532 drug overdose deaths in 2023, an all-time high. 

The Church of Safe Injection Tucson (CoSIT) is one organization trying to reverse this troubling trend.

CoSIT focuses on treating the health concerns resulting from drug use, such as absessed skin, HIV and hepatitis C.

The organization hands out Narcan, clean needles, fentanyl test strips and more to those suffering from drug addiction. Volunteer Chris Chapman says that empathy plays a major role in helping drug users find treatment.

Theyve been told by society youre a drug addict, youre ugly youre a terrible person, youre crazy, youre stupid, and also, you should die which is another message we send to drug addicts, Chapman said. So when we show them that theyre worth being taken care of, it sparks something in them.

At one time, Chapman would be an unlikely candidate to volunteer for CoSIT. He says he grew up in a religious, conservative household, where drug addicts were thought of as simply bad people.

His ideas changed when he began getting cluster headaches, experiencing such constant pain that he began to treat his condition with medical marijuana, a substance hed never tried until he was in 30s. 

He met others who experienced chronic pain, and who sometimes treated it with illicit substances like heroin and fentanyl. He soon realized that people who used drugs were more complicated than he realized and that addiction was more related to mental health than he knew.

Ive worked with people on the street, with young people at raves, where drugs are being heavily used, and the one thing I see among all of them is mental health issues, especially post traumatic stress disorder, Chapman said. If you talk to some of these people and learn how they were raised, its horrifying.

But Chapmans call to the Church of Safe Injection came when many of those around him started suffering overdoses, including a close friend.

Were pouring ice down his pants, slapping him in the face, Chapman says of his friends overdose. Luckily we brought him back, 

Rather than abandoning his friend, Chris chose to keep him safe.

I got some Narcan, gave it to that friends wife, Chapman said. The next week, he overdosed again and she saved his life with it.

This opened Chris eyes to how he could help prevent overdose deaths, which have been climbing for the past decade.

Chapman was immediately attracted to CoSITs empathetic approach to drug users, which ran counter to the focus on punishment and tough love that he grew up with in the 1980s.

We allowed people to die on purpose and restricted the things that could have saved them from dying to send a message to kids that drugs are more dangerous than they really are, Chapman says.

In contrast, he says CoSIT takes a realistic view using harm reduction techniques.

Our goal is to really just to keep people who use drugs as safe as we can while theyre doing it and to stop the spread of blood-borne illnesses, he said. This is to reduce the risk of overdose, help people reverse the overdoses, and also get people into treatment when theyre ready to do that.

He says that some people have issues with the organizations approach, accusing them of encouraging drug use.

People would kind of hate me for doing good and Id have to explain to them that I wasnt enabling and wasnt making things worse, Chapman said. 

However, he counters with evidence, such as a CDC report finding that people who go to a syringe service provider are five times more likely to enter treatment for drug use, along with being three times as likely to stop using drugs. 

Chapman is encouraged by the shift in direction towards drug treatment, saying that it makes up for years of bad decision-making.

No one ever didnt use drugs because they didnt have a clean needle, he said. So there going to use the needles and spread HIV and hep C and thats simply an added harm that theres no reason for.

For more information on the Church of Safe Injection Tucson, visit the organizations website.