Ellen Wirshup, a Portland bar vet with almost a decade in the industry, had been sober for more than a year when she discovered her friend had died of an overdose. He wasn’t the first — a number of her friends had died of unintentional overdoses over the past few years — but she didn’t know this friend was using.
In 2020, more than 18 percent of Oregonians 12 and older had a substance use disorder, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health; that means the state had the second-highest addiction rate in the country that year. The same survey indicates that Oregon has the least access to treatment of any other state in the United States. Measure 110, which decriminalized small amounts of drugs like heroin and methamphetamine, was also supposed to divert cannabis tax dollars to treatment options for people with substance use disorders. While the measure went into effect in February 2021, grants for treatment options weren’t fully distributed until September 2022. All the while, overdose deaths in Oregon jumped from 280 in 2019 to 745 in 2021.
“I’m so tired of hearing a couple of times each month that people passed away from something that is completely preventable,” Wirshup says.
That’s what inspired her to start Project RED (, an initiative that hopes to make naloxone, an opioid reversal medication used in the event of an overdose, available and accessible in as many places as possible, both in Portland and around the country. Project RED, which Wirshup founded with the help of recovery organization the Alano Club of Portland, provides the nasal spray version of naloxone — known by its brand name, Narcan — to bars, restaurants, concert venues, and artist spaces, free of charge. It also offers training to service workers and businesses, if requested.
Currently, naloxone is available almost exclusively at pharmacies without a prescription; however, naloxone purchased for use on others is not often covered by insurance. Other service organizations keep Narcan on hand, but often don’t have the supply or funding to distribute naloxone to anyone who wants it. Generally, they prioritize active, frequent users, and other people at higher risk of an overdose. That means, in the event of an overdose involving a stranger — or within a business — getting your hands on naloxone quickly enough to save someone can be difficult.
“A lot of people I’ve known [in the service industry] have been involved in substance use, including the people who passed away,” Wirshup says. “So what if everyone had some behind the bar, or in the office? What if, if you saw someone experiencing an overdose, you could run into any bar, so no one has to wait in line at a pharmacy?”
By partnering with the Alano Club, Project RED is partially funded by the Vitalogy Foundation, the nonprofit from Pacific Northwestern rock band Pearl Jam, which allows the group to distribute Narcan — and provide trainings — for free. The program is currently focused on the food and beverage industry, artist communities, and entertainment venues, who can request Narcan through the website’s contact page.
Project RED isn’t the first effort in Portland to try to get Narcan in restaurants and bars; FentCheck — which supplies bars, restaurants, and other businesses and community spaces with fentanyl test strips — launched in Portland this spring, requesting bars also keep naloxone onsite in addition to the test strips. However, organizations like Project RED and FentCheck consistently face scrutiny from people who see the potential of intervening in a drug overdose as potentially dangerous, traumatizing, or unnecessary; critics often suggest that keeping overdose prevention materials on-site somehow encourages, or facilitates, drug misuse. From Wirshup’s perspective, as someone in recovery with a storied service industry background, the stigma comes from a significant misunderstanding of how pervasive drug use — and overdose — is within Portland and the country at large.
“Watching someone experience an opiate overdose, not having any idea what to do, is infinitely worse than having Narcan and never needing it,” she says. “Overdoses can happen anywhere and at any time. People can say they don’t want to have people using in their bathroom, but it’s going to happen regardless. Overdose deaths have tripled since 2019; I have no doubt those numbers are going to go up.”
Wirshup is currently working with 15 to 20 bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues in the Portland area, including fried chicken cart-turned-restaurant Jojo; many businesses have not been willing to go public about their involvement with Project RED. Wirshup hopes that changes, but at this point, she’s just trying to distribute as much Narcan as she can.
“There is going to be an uphill battle there, removing the stigma in terms of people who use opiates,” Wirshup says. “I would so much rather it be out in the community and have places know how to use it and maybe not have to, as opposed to having no one to help.”
Those who want to learn more about Project RED can do so via its website.