The overdose crisis won't end until the drug war does

Overdoses and the over-policing of Black and Brown people in this country are part of the same cycle, the same routine, the same war, the same unfortunate normal.
No More Drug War protest in front of the Justice Department on May 16, 2017.
No More Drug War protest in front of the Justice Department on May 16, 2017.Victoria Pickering

What I remember most from the press conference was Dononvan Lewis’s mother, Rebecca Duran. She was standing at the front of the room, just behind Columbus attorney Rex Elliott, and she was clearly devastated. Her son had been killed two days earlier by Columbus police, who were serving a warrant at 2 a.m., shot while unarmed and in his bed by officer Ricky Anderson.

It was the third police shooting in eight days. 

Duran was wearing a jacket and a green dress and was surrounded by family and friends. She didn’t speak. She didn’t need to. The trauma, the sorrow, the pain she wore in her expression spoke in ways words never could. Her presence struck me. I’ve gotten to know her over the past year, and she is a powerful and articulate advocate for her son and for others. But in that moment, her sorrow was palpable. 

It was also the morning after Overdose Awareness Day, a day when Ohioans of all stripes gathered to mourn the almost 5,000 people who died last year and the thousands who died years before. I had written several stories in the months before that centered grieving mothers – and at a rally in Newark the day before, I heard more stories from parents who were grieving the loss of a child. 

And here was another senseless death. Another parent and family and friends struggling to comprehend the death of a young person. 

To be clear: The Lewis killing didn’t involve drugs; it wasn’t prompted by a raid; and he wasn’t suspected of drug trafficking. But the war on drugs has led to the over-policing of Black and Brown communities, to the militarization of our police force and to what author Radley Balko called a kind of “warrior” mentality. And maybe even the belief, the presumption, that serving a warrant at 2 a.m. would be a good idea. 

This is a relationship that I cannot shake: The violence of Lewis’ death and the preventable overdose deaths form a confluence of two awful, bloody rivers. Overdoses and the over-policing of Black and Brown people in this country are intertwined, enmeshed – part of the same cycle, the same routine, the same war, the same unfortunate normal. 

Recent research published in The American Journal of Public Health reinforces a belief that many have held for a while – that the war on drugs exacerbates the overdose crisis. A team of researchers compared the frequency of drug seizures of opioids and stimulants in Indianapolis with fatal and nonfatal overdose numbers in the area. They found that after one drug bust, fatal overdoses doubled in the following week. 

In 2011, after the state moved to shut down so-called pill mills and strictly regulate prescription opioids, many folks shifted to using heroin and then to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Today, the overwhelming majority of overdoses involve fentanyl.

The fact that fentanyl, and now xylazine, are omnipresent in Ohio’s drug supply is the direct result of prohibition. Some call this the Iron Law of Prohibition, which means that as law enforcement increases, so does the potency of the prohibited substance. This is why people made bathtub gin instead of beer during the days of alcohol prohibition – you’d need less to become intoxicated. It also led to many people dying from tainted alcohol. 

Today, prohibition is responsible for hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths every year in the United States. And in Ohio, what began mostly as a white and rural phenomenon is quickly becoming an urban and Black one. Since 2019, the overdose death rate for Black people has surpassed that of white people in the state. According to data from the Franklin County Coroner’s office, the 2022 age-adjusted overdose death rate for white people in Franklin County was 53.2 per 100,000 people compared to 89.61 for African Americans (up from 76.5 in 2021). Based on a study by The Police Scorecard – the first nationwide public evaluation of policing in the United States – the Columbus Division of Police has a higher rate of killing than 99 percent of U.S. police departments. 

Prohibition is enforced by policing, which gives authorities permission to surveil and to arrest and to harm whole communities. Since its earliest days, the war on drugs has targeted communities of color, from Chinese-American communities in San Francisco to Black communities in New York City. And it has been propped up by federal policies dating back to the racist fearmongering of Harry J. Anslinger – the modern father of the Drug War – to the Nixon Administration and through the Reagan and Clinton administrations of my youth.  Even today, sentencing guidelines still disproportionately harm communities of color.

Minister Blyth Barnow of HEAL Ohio, which works to build alliances to change drug policies and help communities, articulates what’s happening with a clarity I cannot muster. “Deadly policing and fatal overdoses are both fueled by two things: white supremacy and the drug war,” she said. “If we are going to successfully address either, we have to start building unexpected, multiracial alliances. Those of us that have lost a loved one to an overdose have to stand next to those who have lost loved ones to police violence, because these issues are connected. The budget of law enforcement is, in part, founded on the lies of the drug war. And the results are deadly for all of us.” 

She noted that in Ohio, “White people are more likely to sell drugs, and all races use drugs at similar rates. But the highest increase of overdose deaths in Ohio are among Black men, and 43 percent of incarcerated Ohioans are Black, even though Black Ohioans only make up 13 percent of the public.”

Prohibition and the war on drugs have created the circumstances. They have led Ohio to this moment in time and space, to this time of reaping, to a mother having lost her son to violent over-policing – the kind of over-policing that has its roots in the war on drugs. And it’s this same war on drugs that has poisoned the drug supply. 

As we move toward August, and toward Overdose Awareness Day and the anniversary of Donovan Lewis’s killing, I hope we can all pay attention and seek new alliances, as Barnow said.

Follow closely as the HALT Fentanyl Act, which expands mandatory minimums, makes its way through Congress. Note how Frank LaRose announced his candidacy with the casual dog-whistle: "An open border is bringing in drugs and crime." Pay attention when representatives ask to use opioid settlement funding to support law enforcement. 

If we don’t address the issues at the heart of all of this, naloxone will never be enough.

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