A Crisis in DC
Bill Mefford

Bill Mefford

Executive Director

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At this moment, Washington DC faces an overdose crisis. Nearly 600 Washingtonians died from accidental overdose deaths in 2021 alone. That is breath-taking to me. 600 people who had families, friends, loved ones, and all who were taken from us far too early. The overdose mortality rate among Black Washingtonians is the highest in the country. At 107 deaths per 100,000 people, the Black overdose death rate is nearly 10 times higher than the white overdose mortality rate in DC. Moreover, Black Washingtonians are almost seven times more likely to be arrested for drug possession. This tragic racial disparity shows that we are in a state of emergency that requires an urgent, systemic change to how the District addresses drug use and addiction.

I believe DC is emblematic of other places in the US. It is time to shift our societal approach to drug use and addiction away from criminalization and punishment and instead, we should address our overdose crisis like the public health emergency that it is. In order to properly treat drug use and addiction like public health matters, we must remove criminal penalties for possessing personal use quantities of drugs. We also must invest in a harm reduction infrastructure that will support the health and needs of people who use drugs.

More than anything, what I have learned from serving in urban contexts and seeing people impacted by the criminal justice system for the last 30 years, criminalizing drug users simply does not work. It does more harm than good.

And the time for demonizing drug users is over. As a follower of Jesus, I believe people who use drugs are made in the image of God and are imbued with divine worth and light. And if we begin the discussion of what to do about drugs by valuing those who use drugs rather than criminalizing them, then framing this discussion through a health care and harm reduction lens is natural and leads to real solutions that protect lives.

As someone with family members who have struggled and currently struggle with addiction, I know pushing for decriminalization feels somewhat counter-intuitive. I have seen the harm substance abuse disorders can do. I have been trained by society, and especially the church, that a one-size-fits-all-forced -abstinence program of recovery should be mandatory for all. Frankly, it is easier to push that kind of solution because it does not require me walking beside them, understanding their journey, and supporting them through what is the best journey forward to achieve happiness and wholeness. Supporting a one-size-fits-all approach is wrong and I have been wrong in believing this for years.

The truth is that in some way, we are all impacted daily by the harms of drug criminalization and stigma. This has led to a failure in centering public health and instead, we have centered retribution and punishment. Imagine why so many have developed substance abuse disorders when the only options have been forced abstinence or incarceration. We need to think more imaginatively and that starts with centering the use of drugs from a public health perspective.

Personally, I do not use drugs or even drink alcohol, but I have seen the harm that legally enforced abstinence programs and policies that criminalize drug use or even possession can have. I have seen individuals, families, and entire communities devastated and it is so past time to do something other than criminalization and incarceration. It is because of my faith as a Christian that I view criminalization as a harmful and detrimental means of retribution on those whom God loves. We can and should do better.

In the coming months I am going to be working with others in DC who no longer support criminalization of drug users and instead want to focus on saving lives, using funds more efficiently, and re-imagining public safety and health. This is a unique time in our city’s history. We have the possibility to move forward through decriminalizing drug possession and supporting the investment in an evidence-based harm reduction infrastructure, including 24/7 harm reduction centers that have safe consumption, comprehensive drug checking services, and additional funds to community-based and peer-led service providers working to improve the health and lives of people who use drugs in our city. The level of commitment, especially financially, that we have invested in law enforcement approaches to drug use for the last several decades must be matched as we turn a new chapter in our city’s efforts to end our overdose crisis through health-based strategies.

If we can muster the political will to move forward and no longer invest in the failed policies of the past, together, we can end the overdose crisis.

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