In the years after synthetic opioids first ravaged the District’s majority-Black communities, the city government rolled out hospital emergency department outreach programs and equipped local police officers with a nasal spray that prevents overdose deaths, albeit not with the speed and enthusiasm many on-the-ground addiction specialists have found suitable.
Some people, like Dr. Edwin G. Chapman, an addiction specialist and internist of 40 years who works east of the Anacostia River, said the District’s seemingly lackadaisical response toward opioid addiction has been particularly detrimental to older Black male heroin users, a group that suffers in great numbers after using packages laced with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
“This [opioid addiction] is a community disease, meaning that everyone has to be responsible. The white response has been to build a community of resources so people are sent directly to treatment instead of prison,” Chapman told an audience of educators and humanitarians at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium on Saturday afternoon during the “Love, Race, and Grace Partnership Prevention” program hosted by local nonprofit Maine Avenue, Incorporated.
Flanked by two clients, Chapman framed opioid addiction as the latest chapter in the 400-year war against African Americans, a significant number of whom suffer from intergenerational trauma, intra-community violence, and other societal ills.
“The opioid epidemic is a constellation of the disease complex,” Chapman said. “Right behind it, people are getting AIDS, hepatitis and infections inside of their heart [from using needles]. When a parent goes to jail [because of their addiction], the children go to the welfare system, or to grandparents raise the child but can’t keep up with them. The violence in our community is because of that structure.”
Data from the District’s chief medical examiner shows that Black people count among 80 percent of more than 800 opioid-related deaths reported since 2014. In 2017, more people reportedly died from opioid overdoses than homicides, making the District third among U.S. cities in opioid-related deaths. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention places Black overdose deaths in the District at levels higher than those affecting white people in New Hampshire, Ohio and West Virginia.
Last year, the Bowser administration launched “LIVE.LONG.DC,” its long-term strategic plan to combat opioid addiction and cut opioid-related deaths in half by 2020. Officials said they would fulfill this vision with community support and marketing campaigns, the implementation of the SAFE DC Act that criminalizes synthetic drugs based on class of chemical compound, and increased referrals to services through medical emergency departments.
Long before the release of “LIVE.LONG.DC,” the District had received much criticism from addiction specialists and community advocates. Until recently, D.C. Department of Health Director LaQuandra S. Nesbitt declined to implement D.C. Council-approved legislation allowing the purchase of overdose-prevention nasal spray Naloxone in local pharmacies. In April, after more than a year of debate about equipping on-duty police officers with overdose-prevention tools, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham announced that patrol officers, sergeants, and members of the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division would receive Naloxone.
In 2015, as the nation’s attention pivoted toward opioid-plagued rural and suburban communities, the Department of Behavioral Health piloted the Heroin Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (Heroin SBIRT) program that connected addicts with outreach workers within a week of their contact with emergency responders.
By the time Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) spoke about Heroin SBIRT at a 2017 Regional Opioid and Substance Abuse Summit, the program had long been out of existence. A provision of “LIVE.LONG.DC” awards contracts for Heroin SBIRT’s implementation in three emergency departments.
On Saturday, as he told his story of overcoming addiction, Carlton Brown, a former client of Chapman’s, touted the impact of medical and community support in his recovery, telling audience members that such resources are needed now more than ever for people struggling to curb their drug use.
“I’m a product of Southeast and we don’t like losing fights,” said Brown, now a minister at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Anacostia. “I began to listen and follow simple recovery steps. This fentanyl is killing us. They put it in us and we die. We don’t know what we’re getting in those packages. I was paying all of this money to kill myself. I was so broke, I couldn’t rub two pennies together. But today, I can keep a dollar in my pocket.”