Photo by Hamza Butler

Is Using Law Enforcement a Solution for D.C.’s Opioid Epidemic?

January 31, 2019

By Hamza Butler

Mayor Muriel Bowser has shared a new tactic in her plan to tackle D.C.’s opioid epidemic.

On January 18, the mayor announced the District would be equipping Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers with naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses.

“We’re very focused on developing solutions to the opioid epidemic that meet the needs of our specific community,” said Mayor Bowser. "This plan takes into account the experiences and advice of our public health and safety experts and represents our commitment to doing everything we can to save lives and end this epidemic."

This, along with the mayor’s broader “Live. Long. D.C.” initiative, marks the beginnings of the executive branch’s efforts to combat the city’s opioid crisis, an epidemic characterized by years of funding mismanagement, slow response times, and outright miscommunication.

Related: Mayor Browser Reveals Plan to Cut Opioid-Related Deaths in Half by 2020

On Monday, January 2, Councilmember Vince Gray along with Councilmember Charles Allen held a public oversight hearing to review the District’s efforts to combat its opioid epidemic. Many residents who were present at the hearing expressed unease and doubt about the mayor's promise to cut opioid-related deaths in half by 2020.

“This is a true crisis, but it’s being treated as anything but,” Councilmember Gray said in his opening statement. Gray criticized D.C.’s executive branch for not only failing to submit the required testimony but also ignoring the request for the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department to attend the hearing.

Describing the executive branch’s actions as “troubling” and “dismissive,” Gray emphasized that the opioid crisis has reached a point where “someone should be accountable for the 700 deaths.”

Related: D.C. Residents Have Highest Rate of Weight-Related Cancer in U.S., Study Says

Mirroring his concerns, nearly 50 D.C.-based professionals publicly testified and submitted detailed suggestions for tackling this public health issue. Doctors, public health experts, sociologists, educators, policy makers and advocacy specialists offered plans of action for how they could help in the larger effort to quell the opioid crisis.  

Related: MLK, Justice and the Promise of a Healthier D.C.

Their critiques and strategies addressed everything from the harms posed to pregnant women and children in foster care, to the disproportionate effect opioid use, misuse and overdoses have on D.C.’s black population.

“We need a system that doesn't leave somebody’s chances of living or dying with OUD [Opioid Use Disorder] at the mercy of the insurance they have, the color of their skin, or the wealth of their family,” said one witness, Tori Fernandez Whitney.

The city's overdue response also raises questions about the level of trust Washingtonians can have in the mayor's office. Executive Director at D.C. Behavioral Health Association Mark LeVota points out that “for many members of the public, and for good reasons, there's a lack of trust in the treatment community.”

In a city where opioid overdoses disportionately result in the deaths of black people, and in a country where black people are over-policed, the community has reason to be wary of law enforcement serving as a solution to a public health crisis.

Nevertheless, D.C. is brimming with residents who are more than willing to offer their experience and expertise to develop alternatives to achieve health equity for the city’s most vulnerable.

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