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Breaking Barriers and Bringing Harm Reduction to New Hampshire

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Article By Han Hamel with assistance from Palana Hunt-Hawkins and Dean LeMire

Graphics by Han Hamel

Dean LeMire is a long-time NH resident, a father, an advocate for people who use drugs, and a rebel with a cause. Dean is a former NHHRC board member and was instrumental in making Harm Reduction a reality right here in New Hampshire.

Dean’s first experience with Harm Reduction was years before he even knew what it was. As a child, he came across a Kurt Loder MTV special where a man was handing out Harm Reduction tools (syringes, Naloxone, and safe injection kits) at an encampment. Not only that but he was reversing overdoses right on the spot. Needless to say, this made a big impact on Dean as a child. He was drawn to the action of going out and doing good, even if there was a risk in order to do it. A young Robin Hood if you will; a child with a yearning to look out for and care for his community.

Later on in life, Dean became an IV drug user and needed “that guy” he yearned to be as a child, but couldn't find him. Until that is, he found recovery and amazing mentors like Kevin Irwin, fellow cofounder of NHHRC. With the encouragement and support of his recovery community, Dean was able to start up a modest syringe access program through a materials donation from NASEN and recently departed harm reduction maverick Mark Kinzly. At the time, SSPs were illegal in NH, but Dean began the program out of his car anyway. Gradually, Dean established connections with local participants and he was able to be “that guy” for other people.

As part of a research study that informed the legislative study commission on SSPs established by the Governor, Dean and a researcher conducted interviews to demonstrate syringe scarcity in Strafford and Rockingham Counties. Dean described some of the information that was shared as “stuff that will make your hair curl.”

“A used syringe in Strafford County would go for $20, among friends. People were filing down the needles themselves and then frankensteining bits of syringes and other materials to make working syringes. Even breaking into biohazard boxes. This was horrific stuff that we were able to bring back to this committee that was studying the potential of a Syringe Access Law.”

Dean and other advocates at the June 2017 public signing of SB234 Syringe Access Law

Dean soon took to the streets, tactfully approaching people in drug activity hotspots to offer Narcan, and if they responded positively, a menu of other materials was also on offer. Two of the program’s first participants became prolific as ‘secondary exchangers’, or volunteer go-betweens for the program and other participants who may not trust or know about the program. These participants would come back with stories like “my buddy OD’d and this stuff [naloxone] saved him”. Though Dean maintains that these secondary exchangers were the second and third personnel of the outreach operation, the June 2017 passage of SB234 Syringe Access Law invited a diverse crew of primary volunteers to expand Hand Up [Syringe Services Program] into the robust, multi-city program that it is today.

Dean LeMire at a Hand Up outreach site, courtesy New Hampshire Union Leader

Dean explained that “one of the major reasons SSPs were able to become law is because it wasn’t going to cost the state money.” For an organization that intended to offer people-powered services, Dean said, the lack of funding meant that volunteerism and enthusiasm were the only currency.

According to Dean, the success and longevity of Hand Up lay upon its volunteers’ commitment to positive person-to-person interaction, as well as a general commitment to ‘the work’. “You can’t go wrong focusing just on the people you intend to benefit from your efforts. It sounds easy but there are lots of distractions,” Dean attests.

And though Dean says he did get distracted and left the state in 2018, many of the names and faces of Hand Up, the SSP that emerged from from Dean’s backpack-and-trunk operation, remain the same as those formative days.

For Dean, saving lives and being able to help people shift their thinking around drug use is really what it is all about. It’s been rewarding for him to be able to help others no longer see in “black and white”.

And five years out, Dean’s impact is undeniable. NHHRC now distributes and disposes of over one million syringes statewide every year. NHHRC SSP participants reversed almost three thousand overdoses over the past year. There are now syringe exchanges in Concord, Claremont, Dover, Keene, Manchester, Mt Washington Valley, Nashua, Rochester, and Somersworth. This all started from Dean’s car trunk.

Thank you, Dean.

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