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Opinion D.C. can pioneer a new way forward in drug policy

Keith Lewis disposes of used syringes at a needle exchange run by Camden Area Health Education Center in Camden, N.J., on Feb. 24. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)
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Evan Douglas, a former patrol officer with the D.C. police, is a speaker with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges and other criminal justice officials who want to improve the criminal justice system.

As a former police officer with the D.C. police, I’ve seen the fallout of the “war on drugs” and tough-on-crime policies. I’ve seen firsthand the problems they cause in our communities, ranging from family destabilization to the heartbreak of someone facing addiction. After witnessing these ill effects, I believe the only way forward is decriminalization, effective harm reduction methods, drug education and record sealing. Decrim Poverty DC recently released a legislative proposal — the District of Columbia Drug Policy Reform Act (D.C. DPRA) — that would accomplish all of this.

Decrim Poverty DC’s legislative proposal would remove criminal penalties for personal-use drug possession and would invest in public health interventions.

I’ve dealt with a lot of situations that motivate my commitment to drug policy reform, but there is one incident I will never forget. In July 2017, I came across a resident at the intersection of Ninth and Barnaby streets SE. He approached my squad car and said, “Hey, a buddy of mine needs help behind the church. He isn’t looking too good.” I informed the dispatcher where I was going and went with him.

I was not ready for what I saw: a body. A person. The remains of a man after a week of rainstorms and D.C.’s blazing summer heat. Scattered by my feet were several baggies and a syringe.

I thought to myself: “What a horrible way to die.” I couldn’t help thinking, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Confronting the loss of life is always painful, but it is even more so when that death could have been prevented.

Our current criminal justice approach prioritizes punishment over treatment, leading to devastating, lifelong impacts. A drug conviction means jobs are harder to find, housing is harder to find, public financial assistance is restricted and expensive legal fees pile up. Compounded, these factors complicate people’s journey to recovery, making them more likely to reoffend.

The D.C. DPRA would reduce incarceration, repeat offenses and the collateral damage caused by imprisonment, easing reentry for people with existing drug-related convictions. Perhaps most important, by centering evidence-based harm reduction solutions, we will save lives.

When drugs are decriminalized, we will see an improvement in police-community relations. Officers rely on witnesses and survivors of crime to come forward with evidence so we can do our jobs effectively. If someone is afraid they’ll be arrested for something such as simple possession, they’re less likely to come forward. This affects officers’ clearance rates: In the 1960s, before the declaration of a “war on drugs,” the clearance rate for homicide was around 90 percent. By 2000, three decades into the failed war on drugs, that rate had dropped to about 60 percent.

A recent study in Baltimore indicated drug decriminalization did not lead to increased crime rates or threats to public safety. The findings are consistent with decades of research showing that decriminalization does not lead to more crime. In Portugal, rates of fatal overdoses and drug-related crime have fallen dramatically since that country implemented decriminalization in 2000.

The harm reduction centers included in the proposal would save lives by providing access to sterile syringes and through testing drugs for purity and potency, reducing the risk of fatal overdoses. Additionally, these centers would offer access to mental health and addiction treatment, primary health care and connections to other support systems, which are the first steps toward confronting substance use disorder. Ninety-three percent of D.C. residents are ready to establish centers to tackle drug use, addiction and overdose through evidence-based public health interventions.

Harm reduction works. Overdose prevention programs have been implemented around the world with terrific success. OnPoint NYC, which opened late last year, has already reversed 134 overdoses that could have been fatal otherwise. To date, there have been no deaths at any of the more than 120 overdose prevention centers around the world. It’s time for D.C. to act.

Tough-on-crime policies only hurt our communities. Laws criminalizing drug use and addiction have lifelong consequences for our most vulnerable neighbors. We must reverse the legacy of the war on drugs and enact evidence-based policies that will save lives. Decrim Poverty DC’s legislative proposal is a critical step forward for D.C., and I hope to see the D.C. Council swiftly introduce and pass it and put its lifesaving initiatives into action.

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