Campaign Launches to Decriminalize Drugs in Washington, DC

    A coalition of activists, including civil rights and faith groups, gathered at the Washington, DC Council building on October 21. They launched a campaign that calls on elected officials to decriminalize drug possession. It comes at a critical moment, after the city endured its worst year on record for drug overdose deaths.

    “We have 50 years of experience to show us what an enforcement-first approach to drugs gets us—record overdose deaths, skyrocketing mass incarceration and severe racial inequality,” said Queen Adesuyi, a policy manager at DPA’s Office of National Affairs in DC. “To continue down this path is not only irresponsible, but cruel and inhumane.” 

    DPA is partnering on the campaign with HIPS, a local advocacy and harm organization serving drug users and sex workers. “We are dedicated to continuing DC’s fight for every person’s right to live a healthy, self-determined life free from stigma, violence, criminalization, and oppression,” said a HIPS representative.

    There is an urgent need to do something different in DC. Overdose deaths there increased by about 40 percent last year. And despite making progress on reducing homelessness, the city continues to have over 5,100 homeless people as of January 2021, including nearly 700 people living on the streets.

    #DecrimPovertyDC’s proposed legislation would decriminalize all drugs for personal use. It would convene a special commission to determine personal-use thresholds for each category of drugs. The commission would include drug users, community members and public health experts.

    Decriminalization in itself can reduce overdose, even if it doesn’t extend to regulating drug supplies. Criminalization makes drug use more dangerous by forcing people to use in isolation or in unsafe, unsanitary settings; removing that threat encourages people to seek resources, check their drugs and report overdoses.

    But the campaign’s proposals would go further, by creating one or several 24/7 harm reduction centers in the city, to serve people who use drugs with sterile syringes, naloxone and other supplies that promote health and save lives. The center would include an overdose prevention site, also known as a safe consumption site (SCS), where people can use drugs with trained staff and naloxone on hand. Approval of this would put DC at the vanguard of a national movement—this summer, Rhode Island became the first US state to sanction an SCS program, though facilities haven’t opened yet.

    The campaign also wants legislation to include justice-oriented measures like criminal record expungement and re-sentencing for people with prior drug convictions. That would mean an end to legal discrimination against people with such convictions trying to get a home, job, or an education.

    “From our meetings with DC Council it’s clear Council members recognize this a natural next step for DC.”

    Adesuyi explained to Filter that recent drug policy victories in the capital inspired the #DecrimPovertyDC campaign.

    In December 2020, the DC Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser passed bill B23-0054, which decriminalized drug paraphernalia for personal use.” It removed criminal penalties for possessing syringes and other tools used for consuming drugs. Because of this reform, DC residents are allowed to use and share sterile syringes, and smoking and snorting kits, without fearing being arrested and charged.

    “From our meetings with DC Council it’s clear Council members recognize this as a natural next step for DC,” Adesuyi said, “given the successful decriminalization of harm reduction tools and drug paraphernalia, and considering the public health emergency we’re in, with overdose only being compounded by COVID-19 and our housing insecurity issue locally.”

    Adesuyi expects at least one or several members to sponsor the bill—but isn’t sure where Mayor Bowser stands.

    “It’s unclear where the Mayor lies on broad drug decriminalization,” she said, “but in terms of our proposal around beefing up our public health and harm reduction infrastructure locally, DC’s Mayor and her Live Long DC plan to address the overdose crisis, she includes wanting to establish a 24/7 harm reduction center.”

    Unfortunately, any drug policy reform in DC faces a potential roadblock: Congress. The federal government has authority to approve—or block—any law the city passes. And because DC has no voting representatives or senators in Congress, it has little power to overcome a veto. Congress has historically used this power to shut down drug policy progress in the District, including blocking sterile syringe distribution and regulated cannabis sales.



    Photograph of the October 21, 2021 rally in DC provided by DPA.

    Update October 21: This article was updated to add quotes from the DC rally.

    DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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