Heart of It All: The overdose crisis won’t end until the drug war does

Protestors with signs across the street from the Columbus Police Dept.

In the bodycam footage, three officers and a police dog enter Donovan Lewis’s apartment in the Hilltop neighborhood of Columbus to serve a felony warrant at 2 a.m. Lewis is asleep in the back room. Officer Ricky Anderson opens the door to his room, the other two yell for him to come out, and then, almost in the same moment, we see Lewis on his bed and Anderson firing a shot in his direction. 

It was the third time Columbus police had shot someone in eight days.

In a 911 call from Lewis’s mother, made after she learned her son had been shot, she begs to know which hospital he was taken to.

“He might be dead,” she pleads, “and I need to know.”

As I process this death, I’m also thinking about the ongoing overdose crisis which affects Ohio. Since January I’ve met with and written about three Ohio mothers who have lost their sons to overdose. Though seemingly disconnected, Lewis was killed a day before International Overdose Awareness Day, a day when people gather to mourn those who died last year from overdose and the thousands who had died in the years before. 

There is a relationship that I cannot shake: the violence of Lewis’s death and the preventable overdose deaths form a confluence of two awful and bloody rivers. Overdose 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 normal. 

Ohio-based harm reduction organizer Minister Blyth Barnow puts it this way: “Deadly policing and fatal overdoses are both fueled by two things, white supremacy and the drug war…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.”

Protestors on the steps of the Columbus Police Department

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 over-policing, to the militarization of our police force, what author Radley Balko calls a kind of “warrior” mentality.

And Columbus, Ohio, has a particularly violent police force. According to Police Scorecard, the first data-driven nationwide police evaluation system, Columbus police kill people at higher rates than almost all other U.S. police departments in cities of 250,000 or more. Almost three-fourths of those killed are Black–and more than half  of those arrested in Columbus are Black. About a quarter of Columbus’s nearly 900,000 residents are Black.

This violence is stunning–even more so that it’s happening in a state that is the epicenter of an unprecedented overdose crisis, the result of prohibition focused on opioids. 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 like fentanyl. Today, the overwhelming majority of overdoses involve fentanyl, which is cheaper to produce, easier to hide, and significantly more potent than heroin or oxycodone. 

The fact that fentanyl is 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. During the days of alcohol prohibition, this is why people made bathtub gin instead of beer–you’d need less to become intoxicated. (This gave rise to cocktails that could cover up a nasty taste). It also led to many people dying from bad alcohol. 

Today, prohibition is responsible for hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths every year in the U.S. 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. In Columbus’s Franklin County, the overdose death rate for Black people was 67.7 compared to 42.3 for white people in Franklin County. 

Prohibition is enforced by policing, by the war on drugs, which begets 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 from the racist fear-mongering of the modern father of the Drug War Harry J. Anslinger through the Nixon administration, and into the present with sentencing guidelines that still disproportionately harm communities of color.

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: a mother who lost her son to violent over-policing, the kind of over-policing that has its roots in the war on drugs, the same war on drugs that has caused our poisoned drug supply. 

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

Calls for police reform and training will never be enough. 

HEART OF IT ALL: At the 8th Annual Overdose Awareness Rally, Newark, Ohio

A table covered with picture frames and votive candles at an overdose awareness rally.

-after a line by Carl Sandburg

The first year there were only five

photos of loved ones

who had died from an overdose,

framed and set up on a scrawny card table.

Some didn’t want to include their children—

You can’t blame them, Trish, the organizer, tells me.

It’s different now, she says.

People are more likely to be okay with it.

Today there are three tables

stretched long in a corner,

covered in purple and white

tablecloths and framed photos, votives, and keepsakes,

tables overcrowded with moments of sweetness

and joy and light—a guy on a minibike,

a fisherman with his catch,

one woman looking into the camera, another looking away,

a father holding his son, friends together, graduations,

days, smiles, hands, teeth, skin, bone.

Under their wrists, pulses.

Under their ribs, hearts.

HEART OF IT ALL: The Bravest Among Us

A boy with a balloon walking. Credit: Brooklyn Burd

NEW LEXINGTON, OHIO—He’s walking at the front of a long line of marchers. Bright blue sky. Sun beating down. He’s holding a multi-colored, star-shaped balloon that reads, “For my daddy.”

Holding onto that balloon. His head up. Leading the crowd of marchers and mourners at an overdose awareness event. His father’s name, bookended with angel’s wings, on the back of his grey t-shirt tucked into his black shorts. His father, one of the estimated 107,622 Americans to die of an overdose in 2021.

Throughout August and into September, these events take place across Ohio, across America, in big cities and small towns, like New Lexington, Ohio, population 4,707, on the cusp of Appalachia.

New Lexington, bisected by Rush Creek and rolling hills.

New Lexington, home of the Panthers football team.

And home of eight-year-old Klay, a boy carrying a balloon, carrying the memory of his father, his little legs walking up the slight rise from Jim Rockwell Stadium to Mill Street and down South Main Street in the heat of a summer day.

His grandmother Kim (he calls her Maw Maw) told me he was close to his father, Kyle Mongold. 

“The love between them was amazing,” she said. “You could just tell the bond.”

He was “daddy” to Klay, never “dad.” The summer before his father died, Klay and his daddy went fishing, played Frisbee-golf at the park, played games, sat on the floor and played with cars,

“We, as a family, did a lot that summer,” Kim said. Her son wasn’t using, and he was beginning to control things that he could not before. He was fighting, she said; he didn’t want to be using. He wanted to get his driver’s license back so he could drive his son around. He was getting his life back. And the family, the got together. They went to Columbus Clippers baseball games. They planned a family trip to Lake Erie.

But he died a day before they were to leave.

Kim says that Klay is doing as well as he can. “He’s an 8-year-old boy, so it’s easy for him to turn things off when he’s got his buddies around to play. But he does have his moments when he thinks about his dad.”

Kim reminded him recently that the one-year anniversary of his dad’s death was coming up.

“That hurts,” Klay told her.

He’s a “tough bird,” his grandmother said.

That’s Klay, the boy carrying the balloon at the head of the pack, the love of his big family behind him, giving him strength, supporting each step.

The stigma surrounding the death of a loved one by overdose might keep many people away from these events, might keep many people from even talking about it. Or maybe they’re not ready to talk. Or they might not want to be associated with them. Or maybe it’s not safe for them to admit their connection. Or maybe, maybe, it is all of those things at once.

And yet, here is this little boy, marching at the front of a long line of people on a hot summer day in New Lexington, Ohio, walking a little over a mile on his own. Meanwhile, there are policy decisions being made in D.C. and in Columbus. There are smart people researching solutions. There are heroes reversing overdoses. And there is this boy, here and now, leading us and teaching us.

Poet Emily Dickinson writes that, “We grow accustomed to the Dark / When Light is put away.” She says that over time, we get used to the darkness, we begin to “fit our Vision to the Dark” and if we’re fortunate, we can keep walking forward. At least, she says, that’s what “The Bravest” among us can do — they keep walking in their own way and “learn to see.”

It is possible to move forward, Dickinson writes, but when we do so, it’s not always perfect. “Life steps almost straight,” she concludes.

That boy beneath the blue sky, balloon in his hand, stepping “almost straight,” the bravest among us.

Jack Shuler is the author of This is Ohio: The Overdose Crisis and the Front Lines of a New America and is a Denison University journalism. He can reached at shulerj@denison.edu

Naloxone is available through Harm Reduction OhioCentral Ohio Harm Reduction. Harm reduction support services are also available through Never Use Alone and Safepoint. If you or someone you know with substance use disorder in crisis call 1-800-662-4357. If you’re in Ohio and you’d like to participate in a community gathering to remember those who have died, go to this website.