As government officials across the country struggle to slow the death toll of America’s opioid epidemic, thousands of police departments from coast to coast have equipped their officers with naloxone, a lifesaving overdose antidote.
But police officials in the nation’s capital — which in recent years has experienced one of the country’s sharpest increases in fatal overdoses — refuse to do so, prompting D.C. lawmakers to advance legislation that would require officers to carry the medication.
A bill co-introduced this week by eight of the council’s 13 members would equip police officers in wards 5, 7 and 8 — which have borne the brunt of the city’s opioid epidemic — with naloxone.
The council considered a similar measure during its last session, but the proposal stalled in the face of opposition from police administrators.
The administration of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) opposes the measure. In a written statement to The Post Friday morning, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue did not cite specific reasons for the mayor’s position, beyond saying that the District’s police and fire departments believe providing police officers with naloxone “is not the right solution for our community.”
D.C. police officials have said they are opposed because of the cost and training of officers.
Council member and health committee Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who drafted the bill, dismissed those concerns.
“This is a life or death matter,” Gray said. “Just saying that it costs too much is just inadequate. That’s just another way of saying, ‘We’ve determined what the price of a life is, and we’re not willing to pay that price.’”
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), one of the bill’s co-introducers, said he has been baffled that the police department and mayor have not moved independently to equip officers with naloxone.
“The law is necessary because they won’t act,” Grosso said.
The new bill comes amid growing recognition among public officials of the severity of the District’s opioid crisis. Between 2012 and 2017, the city had the largest increase in fatal drug overdoses of any urban area in the country, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. In 2017, there were 279 victims of fatal opioid overdoses in the District, more than the number of homicide victims.
The epidemic has disproportionately afflicted older African Americans, who have died at unprecedented rates from heroin contaminated with the synthetic opioid fentanyl. In 2017, black users — many of them addicted to heroin for decades — died at more than seven times the rate of the District’s white residents.
A Washington Post investigation published last month found that D.C. officials failed to adequately respond to the crisis, misspending millions of federal grant dollars and ignoring lifesaving strategies widely adopted in other cities and states.
The use of naloxone by police officers is one example.
At least 2,482 law enforcement agencies in the United States have equipped officers with naloxone, according to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, which tracks the issue. In North Carolina alone, there are at least 250 law enforcement agencies using naloxone, and officers at those departments reversed an estimated 630 overdoses last year.
North Carolina Attorney General Joshua Stein (D), who has urged more departments to adopt naloxone, said carrying the antidote is becoming a common practice among police across the country.
“The one thing that is certain is that a person who is addicted to opiates will never get healthy if they’re dead,” Stein said. “There’s a growing recognition nationally that this is an important element — it’s one element, but it’s an important element — of the comprehensive approach that we need to take in order to address this crisis.”
In response to questions from The Post, a D.C. police spokeswoman shared written testimony against an earlier version of the bill in December 2017 by Kelly O’Meara, executive director of the agency’s strategic change division.
O’Meara argued that officers didn’t need to carry the overdose antidote because D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services personnel already do, and cited “practical and fiscal challenges” such as the cost of the medication and training in its use.
“I recognize that it may sound very bureaucratic to be discussing funding, training and deployment when talking about the possibility of saving one life,” O’Meara said in the written testimony. “I am certainly sensitive to that.”
Proponents of police using naloxone note that officers sometimes arrive at the scene of an overdose before the ambulance does, and that even several minutes can make the difference between life and death.
“Every second counts, particularly when you have fentanyl,” said Regina LaBelle, director of the Addiction and Public Policy Initiative at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at the Georgetown University Law Center. “In an area such as D.C., when we have such increases in overdose deaths, it’s incumbent upon every first responder to be prepared to save a life.”