Washington, D.C. – This week, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the “Opioid Overdose Prevention Act of 2019” (B23-0054)—a bill that unanimously passed the D.C. Council earlier this month—into law. This omnibus bill includes language that removes criminal penalties for possession of drug paraphernalia for personal use and allows community-based organizations to distribute desperately needed harm reduction supplies – such as safer snorting and smoking kits – previously criminalized under DC’s strict paraphernalia laws.
“Advocates and local providers have long fought for drug paraphernalia to be decriminalized in the District. Criminalization stands in the way of ending the preventable spread of infectious diseases and overdose deaths amongst Washingtonians who use drugs,” says Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager for the Office of National Affairs at Drug Policy Alliance. “Judiciary Chairman Charles Allen’s leadership and D.C. Council’s unanimous vote to decriminalize and expand access to sterile harm reduction supplies will literally save lives by appropriately centering the health needs of people who use drugs at a time when COVID-19 is horrifically worsening risks.”
In 2017, amidst one of DC’s deadliest years of overdose fatalities, the D.C. Council unanimously voted to allow for the distribution and personal use of fentanyl test strips. A year later, D.C. Council passed legislation to decriminalize fentanyl test strips on a permanent basis. However, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and HIPS have worked tirelessly to get the D.C. Council to take bolder steps toward reducing overdose deaths by decriminalizing drug paraphernalia more broadly in order to increase access to sterile harm reduction supplies aimed at making drug use safer across modes of ingestion. Unsafe and shared supplies for snorting or smoking put people at risk of hepatitis C transmission, HIV, and both viral and bacterial infections – including COVID-19.
“By focusing on injection use alone, we’re missing certain populations when doing outreach, such as methamphetamine and crack-cocaine users – who often smoke their substances – and women, who inject their drugs at half the rate of men,” said the Outreach team at HIPS, a local harm reduction non-profit organization in the District. “While this is just one step towards full drug decriminalization, this bill allows us to greatly expand the scope of HIPS services to benefit all people who use drugs in the District, and further enables us to meet people where they are at.”
Enforcement of paraphernalia laws in the District have been racially biased, with Black people making up over 80% of arrests. And while decriminalizing drug paraphernalia alone will not end racially biased or targeted policing, it takes away yet another law enforcement tool that has historically and disproportionately impacted D.C.’s Black communities.
“The Chosen Few is ecstatic that the bill has been passed, because a lot of people have fallen victim to the War on Drugs. And now, not only do we have the War on Drugs, but we also have to fight against the pandemic,” says Maurice Abbey-Bey of The Chosen Few. “We are very happy this bill is going to be passed so we can start giving our clients what they really need.”
DPA, HIPS, and other allied organizations will continue to work with the D.C. Council, Mayor Bowser, and other local policymakers to shift drug policies away from criminalization towards public health-centered approaches that treat people who use drugs with dignity and compassion.