The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why did D.C. officials take so long to tackle the opioid epidemic?

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is sworn in for a second term at the Walter E Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. Jan. 2. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

THE RECENT announcement by D.C. officials of a plan of action to tackle the District’s opioid epidemic prompts two questions. What took them so long? And, what are the chances for success given the city’s sorry performance to date in responding to this public-health crisis?

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in December released a 22-page report that maps out the creation or expansion of programs aimed at cutting the number of opioid overdose deaths in the District by 50 percent by the year 2020. Release of the report came after a Post investigation detailed the city’s laggard response in implementing treatment and prevention programs — even as the number of deaths soared.

“People discount the severity of our opioid epidemic because it’s mainly older, African American men who have used heroin long-term who are dying. There just seems to be no urgency in addressing the crisis,” Kaitlyn Boecker of the D.C. office of the Drug Policy Alliance told The Post’s Peter Jamison. The number of opioid-related deaths in the District has more than tripled in recent years, from 83 in 2014 to 279 in 2017 . Final figures for 2018 were not available, but a November report from the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner forecast 204 overdoses.

The apparent dip in overdose deaths in 2018 tragically might be due to the fact that many of the addicts most at risk from the fentanyl commonly cut into heroin have already died. That the city faltered in its efforts — misspending federal grant dollars and failing to implement lifesaving strategies adopted with success by other cities — is clear. “Pure incompetence” was the assessment of one official who said his clinic received nearly $1.5 million of grant money to provide treatment but never had a single patient referred to it.

D.C. officials said the past several years have been a learning period. Hopefully the right lessons have taken hold. There has been a change in leadership in the Department of Behavioral Health, which administers many of the programs, and the strategic plan “LIVE. LONG. DC.” is the result of work by D.C. agencies, doctors, substance abuse treatment providers, council members and individuals in recovery. As she took the oath of office last week for her second term, Ms. Bowser acknowledged the need to do more work in this critical area. The D.C. Council should make sure she follows through.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Congress isn’t doing enough to stop opioid abuse

Letters to the Editor: Addressing the opioid epidemic in the nation’s capital

Colbert I. King: Muriel Bowser won her reelection battle, but she lost clout citywide

Editorial Board: The best strategy on opioids isn’t an enforcement sledgehammer

The Post’s View: D.C. voters should tune out all the identity politics