DC Decriminalized Drug Paraphernalia. Here’s What That Means on the Ground.

    On December 22, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) signed the Opioid Overdose Treatment and Prevention Omnibus Amendment Act of 2020. Among other things, the Act decriminalizes the possession of certain drug paraphernalia, including crack stems, meth bulbs, drug-checking kits, syringes and safer snorting kits.    

    Assuming the Act survives a (usually cursory, 30-day) Congressional review, it will become law, allowing local organizations to distribute more harm reduction supplies to residents who use drugs. Though the Act cites opioids specifically, it will also benefit people who use other drugs, including methamphetamine and crack cocaine.

    The legislation is also a move toward racial justice, as the enforcement of DC’s drug paraphernalia laws disproportionately targets Black people. Although Black people make up 49 percent of DC’s population, they comprised 82 percent of residents arrested on paraphernalia-related charges between 2010 and 2016.

    The Act’s passage also requires the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to “provide opioid antagonist rescue kits to all its sworn personnel.” In January 2019, MPD officers started carrying naloxone, the opioid antagonist that can reverse an opioid overdose.

    That policy change occurred thanks to advocates pressuring Bowser—just a few days prior to the Act’s finalization, Bowser had expressed opposition to equipping police officers with naloxone. The Act now enshrines the policy in law.


    Limitations and Practical Challenges

    Notably, however, the Act only decriminalizes “drug paraphernalia for the personal use of a controlled substance.” It does not decriminalize paraphernalia associated with drug selling, such as scales. This approach furthers the disparity between how the law treats people who sell drugs and people who use drugsa distinction that is often meaningless in practice.

    Bowser’s signing of the bill signifies progress, but it remains to be seen whether the decriminalization of drug paraphernalia will hold up in practice. Participants in syringe service programs (SSPs) already have the legal right to carry syringes without police harassment and are given enrollment cards so they can demonstrate this. But police nationwide frequently choose not to follow the law around this—including in DC, where MPD officers have often detained and arrested local SSP participants. 

    It’s possible that MPD officers won’t be aware of the changes, and will continue to arrest and harass people carrying paraphernalia. It’s also possible that MPD might be aware of the changes, but use their recency “as an excuse to criminalize” SSP participants, said Shane Sullivan, a community outreach specialist with DC harm reduction organization HIPS.

    “We had a client last year who received fentanyl test strips from us, and was still arrested by MPD for possession, just [for] the strips,” Sullivan told Filter. The DC City Council decriminalized fentanyl test strips in 2017. “I know that MPD in general knows that there are syringe exchange programs, but that’s … just because it’s so engrained after 13 years of having a program in the city that they know that it’s legal.”

    HIPS also serves drug users who live in nearby Maryland and Virginia, neither of which have decriminalized drug paraphernalia. SSP participants’ enrollment cards technically protect clients from criminal charges related to carrying syringes while they’re in DC, but the cards carry no legal weight outside of DC—and either way, cops will ignore the law if they want to.

    There’s also the matter of how to ensure that people who use drugs are themselves aware of the changes. Sullivan’s plan is to “pair any sort of newer equipment that we’re passing out with that type of information so folks know firstly, why we’re suddenly distributing new supplies, and also that they can’t be criminalized for it.”



    Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons CCO

    • Lucia was previously Filter’s editorial fellow. She also worked to improve prison conditions as an intern with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Her writing has appeared in publications including the South Side Weekly, OpenSecrets and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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