On November 17, all 13 Washington, DC Council members voted affirmatively on their first read of the Opioid Overdose Treatment and Prevention Omnibus Amendment Act of 2020, which, among other things, repeals the criminalization of certain drug paraphernalia. That includes things ranging from drug checking kits to crack pipes, hypodermic needles and sniffing straws.
The paraphernalia decriminalization bill was unanimously advanced just two weeks after DC’s voters approved the deprioritization of policing certain psychedelic substances. Like Oregon’s historic vote to decriminalize possession of small amounts of any drug on November 3, Washington’s encouraging paraphernalia legislation stands to benefit people who use drugs—while people who sell drugs seem once again to be excluded.
For the 2020 Omnibus bill to become law, it must now be approved by the Council in another hearing, signed or allowed to take effect by Mayor Muriel Bowser, and—uniquely to DC—survive Congressional review. The House of Representatives and the Senate could enact a joint resolution, with the president’s signature, to block the actualization of the bill. If that doesn’t happen within the review period, usually 30 days, then it will become law.
Having advocated on this issue for years with disappointing results, DC harm reductionists are now optimistic about the bill’s prospects.
“Paraphernalia decriminalization was slated to pass in 2018 as part of a larger omnibus bill around ‘opioid crisis’ funding, but was removed last-minute,” said Shane Sullivan, a community outreach specialist at the DC harm reduction hub HIPS, who recently wrote about DC’s decriminalization effort for Filter. “We believe we have the support of the majority of the Council to ensure its passage now, particularly as HIPS and Drug Policy Alliance have partnered to advocate for its passage since March (and, in doing so, garnered the support of over 30 local and national organizations), and with the risk of COVID-19 transmission making this issue even more pressing from a public health framework.”
The politician behind the formerly unsuccessful paraphernalia bill that’s now incorporated into the 2020 Omnibus bill holds a public health and anti-racist analysis of drug policy. “The War on Drugs has failed. Rather than any meaningful reduction in personal drug use, we instead see overdoses, racist mass incarceration, and increased spread of infectious diseases,” said Councilmember David Grosso in a statement following the November 17 vote. The bill brings DC “closer to completely abandoning that model in favor of a harm reduction and public health approach.”
Other Council members also seem to recognize the imperative of public health. “By continuing to criminalize possession of drug paraphernalia for personal use, the District fails to recognize drug use disorders as the public health crises and diseases they are,” wrote Council member Charles Allen in the bill’s November 12 committee report. “Not only is this approach misguided, it runs counter to the District’s other successful harm reduction efforts that quite literally save lives.”
For on-the-ground harm reductionists, the tangible public health benefits of ending paraphernalia criminalization are numerous. With HIPS workers able to finally provide safer sniffing and smoking kits at their drop-in center and outreach van, people who use drugs will be able to access tools that reduce the risk of hepatitis C and other infectious disease transmission—and also present an alternative to the comparatively riskier practice of injecting drugs, “empower[ing] them to make more informed choices about their health,” as Sullivan said.
Additionally, more Washingtonians, particularly those who don’t inject drugs and haven’t engaged with harm reduction services, may find more reason to connect with organizations like HIPS. “Those populations may have previously thought of us as ‘just’ a syringe exchange program, or otherwise thought our services weren’t for them,” said Sullivan, “but if we can connect them to safer use materials, we can also more easily connect them to resources all people who use drugs can potentially benefit from, like drug education, naloxone, and (if they’re interested) [substance use disorder] treatment.”
Criminal justice reform stands to be advanced by the bill, as well. It will nix one way Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers target Black residents of DC and subject them to the harms of criminalization. Of the over-7,000 paraphernalia arrests made by MPD between 2010 and 2016, 82 percent, or 5,808, involved Black people, according to written testimony from Queen Adeyusi, Drug Policy Alliance’s* policy coordinator, as found in the committee report.
“The statute is part of a larger criminalization apparatus that is used as a means to disproportionately target Black DC residents, so its removal is a small step towards reforming racist and classist drug policy laws in the District,” said Sullivan.
Despite all of its promises for public health and criminal justice reform, the 2020 Omnibus bill re-entrenches the disparate treatment of so-called “users” from “dealers,” a distinction that breaks down when scrutinized. New statutory language is introduced to exempt “personal use” items from criminalized paraphernalia—all while continuing to threaten people possessing trafficking-associated objects with fines and incarceration.
In the minds of politicians and police, this is a good thing. “Decriminalizing paraphernalia for personal use will leave MPD with the necessary tools to enforce the law against those who possess paraphernalia for other ‘higher-level’ purposes like serious trafficking,” wrote Council member Allen.
But he misses two things. One, drug users, regardless of whether they sell drugs or not, often have paraphernalia that remains criminalized, like scales for measuring their supply. Two, many so-called traffickers use drugs and have substance use disorders themselves.
Advocates recognize the bill’s shortcomings while rightfully highlighting its importance.
“We don’t believe in criminalizing drug sellers—many of whom are drug users themselves,” said Sullivan. “This bill is an essential step towards actually treating drug use as the public health issue it is, but we recognize it’s just one step.”
They added: “Unfortunately in the current political climate, wherein there are still no legally sanctioned safe consumption spaces in the country and harm reduction is still considered ‘controversial,’ we believe this bill is the most feasible step towards broader drug policy reform, but we intend to keep advocating for policies that will bring about substantive change for everyone in communities impacted by drug use.”
Photograph of safer sniffing, smoking, and injecting supplies by Filter.
*DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.