“This is how the magic happens,” Blyth Barnow says.
We’re sitting in her home office – a white desk wedged into a corner between two windows, calendar pages posted on the walls with pink and neon yellow Post-its. There are many houseplants, including a gorgeous green snake plant that pushes slightly toward the light.
The magic in this case is not very… magical. It’s just watching live testimony on the Ohio Channel about during the Ohio legislature’s lame duck session. SB 288 is an omnibus criminal justice reform bill that will reduce sentences for imprisoned people who complete education, job training, or other programs. It also makes it easier to seal and expunge criminal records and, most importantly for Barnow, expands Ohio’s Good Samaritan Law, which prevents prosecution for drug possession if you call 911 in the event of a drug overdose.
But the law has some limitations. The law’s protections can only be used twice, it requires a treatment screening and referral, and it doesn’t apply if a person is on probation or parole. If passed, SB 288 will expand the law slightly and prevent people from being arrested for having drug paraphernalia, or for being on probation or parole. These changes could encourage more folks to use it and help address the rising rate of overdose, especially among Black Ohioans.
“Because Black Ohioans are over-represented in Ohio’s carceral system, that means they’re over-represented in parole and probation, which means they’re underrepresented in protection from the Good Samaritan law,” Barnow says. “It’s one of many reasons that Black Ohioans have disproportionate loss to overdose.”
One after the other, proponents and interested parties comment on the bill, hopefully pushing the House closer to a vote. It’s popular with representatives of a range of organizations, from the Ohio Public Defender’s office to the Buckeye Institute to HEAL Ohio (Harm reduction, Education, Advocacy, and Leadership), the organization that Blyth launched in August to help drive harm-reduction-focused policy changes in Ohio
Louis Tobin from the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association is speaking.
“If he skips Good Sam, that’s a good sign for us,” Barnow says. She grabs a red foam stress ball and starts squeezing. He skips Good Sam. “Whew,” she says.
Barnow has been working to expand Good Sam for 3 ½ years. A previous bill included the provision about paraphernalia but never made it to a floor vote.
“I’m feeling hopeful,” Barnow says. “But what is it? Counting the chickens before they hatch? Well, I see no chickens yet.”
Deepening the Harm Reduction Work
Barnow, 38, is one of the most important organizers focused on policies that support harm reduction in Ohio. She was raised in Berea, on the southwest side of Cleveland. She’s a preacher and a writer. Before starting HEAL, she served as Ohio Associate Director for Faith in Public Life, helping develop connections between clergy and the harm reduction movement. Blyth has a Master of Divinity degree from the Pacific School of Religion and serves on the board of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). For more than a decade, she worked in direct service and organizing in the Bay Area and was the national conference coordinator of the Harm Reduction Coalition.
Full disclosure: Blyth Barnow is one of the smartest, imaginative and knowledgeable sources I have as a journalist. Bonus: She can call folks in and call them out in the kindest way possible, which means she’s comfortable around people from all walks, as they are with her.
I when she held at the Church for All People on Parsons Avenue, during which she made the connection between the resurrection story of Jesus Christ and the resurrective possibilities of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone. Through this service, which she has led over a dozen times, Barnow advocates for an end to the war on drugs, increased resources for people who use drugs, and more support for harm reduction. She honors those who have died, blesses naloxone, offers training, and distributes the life-saving drug. It’s a moving mixture of reflection and action, of the corporeal and spiritual.
Watching the Ohio Channel on a Thursday morning feels neither moving nor spiritual. But Barnow tells me she sees it as just that. Advocating in the Ohio legislature for people who use drugs has been a way to deepen her understanding of the harm reduction credo: “Meet people where they’re at.” Sometimes, she says, it’s possible to get people to connect with compassionate policies through understanding and empathy. Sometimes, it’s not.
More importantly, though, she knows that most harm reduction folks are busy organizing and serving on the frontlines and they can’t just drop everything and head to the Ohio Statehouse. She’s working to create ways to give space to people who use drugs and their allies, for the people most affected by the overdose crisis. It’s a calling.
A Table for Everyone
Blyth Barnow has a superpower: She can run an hour-long meeting that actually lasts one hour. She leads the Ohio Harm Reduction Policy Table, a bi-weekly Zoom meeting for activists, organizers, and frontline harm reduction workers.
The Policy Table was launched in the spring of 2021 by the Transforming Justice Network. There were just five people involved, including Blyth. Now, 109 people are invited from around the state – people who know what’s happening on the ground, through lived experience or the work they do. Folks call in from office desks, their cars, or their kitchen tables, sometimes as kids shout in the background. Ideas are shared, problems discussed and action items made. And without fail, every meeting begins and ends on time. Maybe it's due to her organizing experience or pastoral training, but the punctuality and respect for people’s time feels radically elegant. More importantly, with each meeting a movement builds, a community strengthens.
The Policy Table, she says, is the center of her work, because it’s about building a community, about building resilience. “If I can’t submit testimony, someone else can – it undoes the savior nature of the work and it’s not just about me; it’s about us.” She’s inspired by Shirley Chisholm’s quote: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
“In my mind, I like to think of it as, ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, build your own,’” Barnow says.
“I watched the OSU-Michigan game,” Barnow says, launching into a sports metaphor – not something I’ve heard her do before. “I feel like in Ohio, it’s required to watch. There were a couple of times when a Michigan back ran the entire length of the field, just ran unopposed. And sometimes I feel like that’s the state of play in Ohio. Legislators get these bills and run down the field, and no one is there to body block them. That’s what the Policy Table is for.”
A group effort to tackle errant runners, building power for people who don’t feel like they have power, and learning to work within the system for change. (At a recent holiday party, Blyth handed her guests laminated charts describing the process for passing a bill in Ohio.)
She closes each meeting by asking folks to share their wins – small wins from their personal lives (“I only drank two cups of coffee today!”) or big wins from their organizing life (“I distributed a ton of naloxone last Saturday!”). Even if folks don’t understand the win, they cheer, building collective joy, she says, celebrating one other.
“Harm reduction is an expression of joy and hope,” Barnow says. “It’s easy to look at this work and see suffering and pain and oppression, and all of those things are absolutely there, but harm reductionists are people who are banding together and saying, ‘My people deserve more, my people deserve different, and here is how people should be treated,' and that is a really joyful, hopeful, beautiful thing.”
Barnow keeps one eye on the computer screen and one eye on her notes. She’s thinking through this moment, but also a few moments ahead. In 2021, almost 5,200 people died from overdoses in Ohio – the need is real and immediate. What she hears : community-based syringe service programs with enough funding for staff and outreach; legalized drug-checking beyond fentanyl testing strips; equitable, easy access to methadone; reduced policing and surveillance from law enforcement; and an end to cash bail.
Those are things that come up again and again, she says, but people shouldn’t have to work so hard for things that will save lives.
It’s noon and so far, we’ve only heard support for SB 288. Barnow is feeling good.
It’s almost a week later, and the Policy Table is meeting. SB 288 has passed out of committee and will, Barnow hopes, be voted on later tonight. The faces on the Zoom call light up.
HB 456, which will legalize fentanyl testing strips, was added to SB 288.
This is a big deal, she says, and notes that this has been a long time coming – since 2016 when Policy Table members Cindy Koumoutzis and Trish Perry from OhioCAN first pushed for this law.
“We went in with four asks and we’ll get two, the two most pressing,” she says. Then she shares wins for the year since this is the last meeting of 2022.
“I’m superstitious, and I won’t say 288 yet. We helped move bail reform forward, even though it got stalled out, but we joined a broad coalition.”
Folks from the Policy Table submitted more than 83 pieces of testimony that she can count.
She says that stopping dangerous legislation is also a win, showing up and offering opponent testimony, letting legislators know that a bill could be dangerous to a community. Ultimately, she says they “shoulder-checked” five bills.
“We do big things when we work together,” Barnow says.
Late last night SB 288 was passed by the house.
At 6:46 this morning I got a text: “It’s official, SB 288 has passed!!! Just in time for your deadline.”
It will all start again in January, but Barnow is ready. She’s suited up, on the field, shoulders down.
Jack Shuler is the author of This is Ohio, which explores overdose and harm reduction in Ohio and beyond. He is also the Chair of Journalism at Denison University.