The war on drugs has had devastating effects on the Black community in the District of Columbia and the country. This so-called “war” has impacted the Black community in devastating ways: an escalation in overdose rates, the weakening of families, the death of loved ones, and mass incarceration. We know the myriad of problems that are associated with trying to arrest our way out of drug use and addiction. It has filled our prisons and jails, torn apart families, created racial disparities in policing, and has driven a deeper wedge between law enforcement and the Black community, and communities of-color. Drug criminalization causes drug use to exist in the shadows of our society, and as such has contributed to a more tainted and toxic drug supply permeating the community resulting in skyrocketing rates of overdoses and deaths. 86% of the fatal overdose deaths last year were of Black Washingtonians. 

Criminalization and incarceration have not reduced or eliminated drug use in our communities. In fact, the impact of this failed approach disproportionately harms Black Washingtonians because drug law violations are unequally enforced throughout the city. Despite evidence demonstrating that Black Washingtonians use drugs at much lower rates (across the board) than white people, between January 2017 and April 2022, 480 white people were arrested for drug-related offenses compared to 3,342 Black people. We have witnessed how a law enforcement approach, and not a health-centered approach, has made life worse for those struggling with chaotic drug use by forcing people to struggle with their addiction and dependency on the periphery of community. There are severe limitations to successfully reducing the harm associated with addiction because we ignore the needs and issues of people who use drugs because it is out of sight and out of our minds. We have not seriously invested in harm reduction in the ways that we should to improve and save lives. We have built more jails and prisons, but we have not opened more evidence-based harm reduction and treatment centers to ease or eradicate the effects of drug use and addiction. Criminalization, particularly in the Black community, creates a cycle of poverty, mental illness, dysfunctional families, and lives, and often contributes to premature loss of life.

We should be investing in alternatives to this deadly cycle. We need to embrace our knowledge and historical perspective and stop arresting and punishing people simply because they use or are found in possession of small quantities of drugs. We need to create an effective system of treatment on demand allowing people to reclaim and restore their lives. I live in Ward 4, but across the city polls show that residents overwhelmingly support a proposed policy of drug decriminalization and want to see investments in public health strategies, including establishing a 24/7 harm reduction center, as suggested by the #DecrimPovertyDC campaign. Even in Ward 4, polling shows that 82% of voters support eliminating criminal penalties for limited, personal use quantities of drugs (decriminalization), 93% of voters support establishing 24/7 harm reduction centers to offer health services and overdose prevention services to people who use drugs, and 96% of voters support allocating additional funding to community-based healthcare and treatment services for those in need. 

Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming public support for drug decriminalization and substantial support for investment in harm reduction, we remain at a standstill with the D.C. Council. Now, more than ever, we must adopt a humane, evidence-based public health approach to address drug use and addiction rather than continuing with the failed strategy of punishment, which rarely, if ever, provides real justice or support. As decades-long, punitive strategies of the drug war persist, overdose deaths also continue to climb, the rate of incarceration grows, and mass criminalization still disproportionately harms low-income and Black communities throughout D.C. We need to be using our common sense, following the evidence, and provide treatment rather incarceration. This is the only winning strategy that there is, and this is the only way to slow down, if not stop the high overdose and death rate that currently persists in our community.

Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler is pastor emeritus of Plymouth United Congregational United Church of Christ, the current director and chief visionary of Faith Strategies, LLC, and community relations at CORE DC. Follow him on Twitter @GraylanHagler.

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