Naloxone can save lives by reversing the effects of an opioid overdose. (Rachel Chason/The Washington Post)

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Friday announced a major expansion of the District’s investment in a lifesaving antidote to drug overdoses, pledging to buy more than 50,000 naloxone kits as part of new efforts to address the city’s opioid crisis.

In a written statement, the mayor said those kits would be given to police officers, community organizations, drug users and District residents who know people at risk of a drug overdose.

“This plan takes into account the experiences and advice of our public health and safety experts, and represents our commitment to doing everything we can to save lives and end this epidemic,” Bowser said in the statement.

The move follows stories published last month in the The Washington Post that examined the city’s overlooked opioid crisis and the D.C. government’s failure to effectively respond.

The Post found that the District has distributed naloxone at a far lower rate than other cities with comparable opioid problems. As overdoses peaked in 2017, Baltimore handed out more than four times as many naloxone kits per capita as the District, and Philadelphia more than three times as many.

The mayor’s proposal to obtain more than 50,000 kits represents a dramatic increase in naloxone purchases and distribution. From May 2016 through August 2018, the naloxone program run by the D.C. Department of Health handed out fewer than 6,000 kits, according to city records. That figure is probably an underestimate because the records omit some months.

Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) welcomed the news of the new naloxone investment, saying it was overdue after years of inadequate supply. “To see the mayor committed now to actually doing something that is meaningful, to put the number of kits out there that we need to address the crisis, makes a lot of sense,” Grosso said.

A spokeswoman for Bowser said that most of the 50,000 new kits would go to community groups and police officers but that the details were still being worked out.

The decision to equip officers with naloxone is an about-face for the mayor and the police department, which just last week opposed legislation advanced by D.C. Council members that would have required police in some parts of the city to carry the medication. Police officials cited the cost and training requirements for officers and said the policy was unnecessary because D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services workers already carry the antidote.

That stance made the District an outlier among cities and states confronting high overdose rates. 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.

Bowser’s announcement comes as her administration is under intense pressure to overhaul its response to opioid deaths. There were 279 fatal opioid overdoses in the District in 2017, the latest year of complete data, according to the D.C. chief medical examiner. The 2018 death toll is projected to drop to just over 200, a number that would still surpass homicides.

Between 2012 and 2017, the city had the largest increase in fatal drug overdoses of any urban area in the country, according to a Post analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Most of the deaths have been among older African American drug users inadvertently consuming heroin cut with fentanyl.

The council has scheduled a hearing later this month to question Bowser administration officials about the mayor’s opioid strategies. Federal officials are auditing the city’s Department of Behavioral Health based on problems with the management of opioid grants disclosed by The Post.