Vending machine conveniently offers life-saving drug

Lifesaving drugs aren’t always accessible, nor free. One local nonprofit is hoping to change that narrative. With their latest installment, a vending machine containing free naloxone, The Grand Rapids Red Project aims to save lives and prevent overdose. Focused on empowering individuals, The Red Project envisions a world where everyone has access to health-related services wherever and whenever they need them. 

Steve Alsum, executive director, says their focus is on providing people with access to the tools that they need to stay healthy and stay alive. “We really look at it as a basic human right that people have access to those tools and information,” he says. “One of those tools being the naloxone rescue kits in reference to the current opioid overdose epidemic that we’re going through.”

The Red Project began in 1998 in Grand Rapids, offering syringe access programs, expanding to address HIV, hepatitis, overdose and general substance use. Through the state Health Department, they also offer rapid HIV testing, case management for those living with HIV, mobile health units and naloxone kits.

The organization has been training people who inject drugs, and other community folks on how to prevent and respond to opioid overdose situations since 2008. Alsum says naloxone is a very safe, effective and easy to use unscheduled prescription medicine. 

“Within somebody’s body, it acts pretty much as a pure antidote to opioids,” he says. “If somebody has taken opioids or is suffering the effects of an opioid overdose, the naloxone will go into their brain’s receptor site [and] will push the opioids out of that receptor site for a limited period of time, making them inactive. It will allow somebody to start breathing and will save their life. If naloxone is given to somebody without drugs in their system, it will be pretty much like administering water to them. It’s inactive without opioids in somebody’s system.”

Red Project has seen many lives saved by the distribution of their kits throughout the last decade. During the month of October 2021 in Kent County, they distributed almost 700 kits, not including the vending machine retrievals.

The newest installment, opened about a month ago, will hopefully save even more by making naloxone available anytime of the day or night.

“Currently, we have office hours in our Grand Rapids location — 40 hours a week through which people can access naloxone kits. We really believe [the kits] should be accessible 24/7," Alsum says. 

The machine comes from a partnership with Wayne State University, making Grand Rapids one of 10 locations to have a vending machine, which are also found in jails statewide. “We’re distributing about 10 kits a day,” estimates Alsum, “which is only a piece of the distribution that we do.”

Ideally, Alsum would love to see multiple vending machines throughout the city of Grand Rapids. “Especially with the illicit opioid supply primarily being fentanyl, we really want the kits accessible when and where people are overdosing,” he says. “We’d love to work with additional businesses securing additional vending machines in places throughout the city.”

Photos courtesy of The Grand Rapids Red Project
Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
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