Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser is preparing to open the first of two sobering centers designed to divert drug users from emergency rooms and jail cells, the Washington Post reports. The facilities would be the first of their kind in the District, which is suffering the second highest rate of fatal opioid overdoses in the nation. The centers operate as places where people can rest, shower, put on clean clothes and begin treatment if desired in a respectful setting where clinical staff are trained to administer the overdose antidote naloxone. Some question why the centers are not accessible to residents in one major area east of the Anacostia River and are pressing city officials to be bolder in their efforts to reduce the death rate.
“There seems to be a missed opportunity here,” said council member Zachary Parker. “We need to act more urgently and treat this as the public safety and public health crisis that it is.” Some experts and reform-minded policymakers contend that to truly save lives, the city should go a step further and develop a facility where people can use illegal drugs under the watch of staff trained to reverse overdoses. Only New York is home to these centers in the U.S. and while a pilot program is planned for Rhode Island, similar proposals hit roadblocks recently in other major cities gripped by drug deaths. D.C. has an additional barrier: the need for congressional approval. “It’s a political issue. The science is very clear that they save lives and are also very instrumental in getting people into treatment,” said Edwin Chapman, a physician and outspoken advocate for harm reduction. The introduction of fentanyl and its analogues devastated the population of D.C. drug users, with 98 percent of fatal overdoses involving fentanyl in 2022, nearly doubling from early 2016. The vast majority of victims, 85 percent, were Black.