PROVIDENCE — Amy Qu has spent this spring pondering a perplexing issue: Rhode Island’s opioid crisis.
As a senior industrial design student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Qu listened to people recovering from opioid use disorder, looked for a fentanyl test strip on Kennedy Plaza, and heard the state legislator who lobbied for the landmark law that sealed Rhode Island’s place. as the first state in the country to allow harm reduction centers – safe spaces for people to use purchased illegal drugs under medical supervision.
Qu is part of an innovative studio class at RISD’s Center for Complexity, in which students explore complex real-world problems from a design and systems perspective, in search of more compassionate approaches.
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Qu, 22, focused on ways to protect users by ensuring a safe supply of drugs.
“They have that in other countries, but they don’t have that in the United States,” said Qu, from North Carolina. “Addicts do not deserve to suffer harm or death from what they use.”
With that in mind, Qu is reinventing fentanyl test strips, used to test illegal substances for the potent and widespread synthetic painkiller linked to many overdose deaths. In their current iteration, the test strips are flimsy and poorly packaged, with few instructions.
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“It’s a human problem”
Qu fused the test strips seamlessly into concert wristbands to ensure they would be widely distributed at festivals, where drug use is often rampant. A section of the strip doubles as sandpaper so a viewer can shave off a small portion of a pill for testing purposes.
“It’s not a drug or drug addict problem. It’s a human issue,” said Qu, who isn’t sure what career path she’ll follow, but is drawn to the intersection of design and public health.
Qu said her interest arose from a podcast she listened to about a man who lost his brother to an overdose.
“What resonated the most was that there was a huge societal stigma around drug addiction. It felt like people needed a lot more empathy in those systems,” Qu said.
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Transcend the stigma
Justin W. Cook, founding director of the Center for Complexity, asked students to consider stigma as a strength in messaging and media. People with substance use disorders are often viewed through the lens of moral failure, he said.
“If you treat something like a criminal case, it really shuts down a part of society,” Cook said.
He urged students to conceptualize harm reduction centers not as sterile, nondescript facilities hidden away in malls, but as forward-facing meeting places that transcend stigma.
“I think we have to ask ourselves, what can we do to help addicts get their agency back,” Cook said.
He is not naive, he says; he knows organizers will grapple with the “not in my backyard” sentiment known as NIMBYism. “The challenge is that anyone who opens a center will face pushback.”
He expects Rhode Island’s experience in opening safe drinking sites to be closely watched nationally. He hopes the students’ work can help inform the conversation.
“It’s a real opportunity to shape some really big decisions in the state,” Cook said of the students’ work.
Some of Qu’s classmates will focus on aspects of center design for the final projects that will be showcased later this month.
“Hopefully we can contribute to a more nuanced harm reduction narrative,” Cook said.