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.