This week, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and HIPS sent a letter – signed by over 30 other local and national organizations – calling on the DC Council, and Judiciary Chairman Charles Allen, to remove criminal penalties for the possession and distribution of harm reduction supplies currently criminalized under the District’s strict drug paraphernalia laws. This letter comes after DPA and HIPS sent a joint statement to DC Council in May urging for the immediate decriminalization of harm reduction tools as COVID-19 continues to worsen conditions for people who use drugs in the District, creating a significant need for increased access to these life-saving supplies.
The latest letter points out that, because of this outdated law, public health organizations are held hostage from being able to distribute sterile, drug use equipment. 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. Not only does this limit the ability to promote safe and hygienic practices, but it is exacerbating the District’s compounded overdose and COVID-19 public health emergencies.
“By criminalizing drug paraphernalia, we are only adding to those challenges that people who use drugs face—especially in these times—and increasing the stress already put on the local health system as a result of COVID-19,” says Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager for the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “The Council must recognize this as the public health emergency that it is and act in the best interest of health and safety by swiftly putting an end to these counterproductive policies before they leave more people vulnerable to preventable and potentially-deadly infectious diseases and death.”
“Decriminalizing personal use drug paraphernalia is the best way to improve the health and safety of the city as a whole by bringing another element in to reduce the transmission of HIV, HCV, and COVID-19,” says Tamika Spellman, Policy & Advocacy Associate at HIPS. “HIPS has advocated many years on the merits of progressive measures to address drug use with proven and highly effective harm reduction methods, and we know this will have great success as so many of our other programs and initiatives have.”
“Decriminalizing the tools of use is essential to begin to breach the gap that the carceral system has created for people who use drugs,” says Jessica Martinez of The Chosen Few. “When someone uses drugs, it can become easy to hide it from the people who care about you most. Sometimes it becomes harder to take care of ourselves. Sharing pipes or a straw for snorting can expose someone to diseases they would never think about talking to a doctor about. Not because they don’t care about their health. It’s because they are criminalized. That’s what’s so important about this effort. It reframes drug use into a public health issue.”
In 2017, amid its deadliest year of overdose fatalities, the Council unanimously voted to amend the Drug Paraphernalia Act of 1982 in an emergency measure to allow for the distribution and personal use of fentanyl test strips, which has likely resulted in thousands of lives being saved. It is now imperative that they urgently act to extend those protections to all harm reduction supplies currently criminalized under the District’s strict paraphernalia laws.