My little sister Keeley died of a heroin and fentanyl overdose in February 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning to descend on the United States. Keeley was the mother of a young child. She was pregnant. She was 29 years old.
Fatal overdoses like Keeley’s have increased steeply in recent years. During the year ending in November 2020, approximately 92,000 people died of a drug overdose in the U.S. — a stark increase over 2019, when approximately 70,630 people died of overdoses. There was a particularly unprecedented rise in overdoses once the pandemic hit. Some of the most impacted groups have been Black and Indigenous communities. While federal data are flawed in terms of delineating which drugs and drug combinations were involved in overdoses, the increase in deaths is clearly significant.
Republicans have wrongly pointed to the overdose crisis as a rationale for high levels of policing. And unfortunately, many of President Joe Biden’s answers to the overdose increase — such as expanding criminalization-based drug courts, increasing court-mandated drug treatment, training police to administer overdose antidotes and emphasizing fentanyl criminalization — are also grounded in law enforcement.
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Yet policing directly contributed to my sister’s death. To prevent overdose deaths and truly confront the crisis, we must defund and abolish the police.
Keeley was first arrested at 14, for stealing store merchandise to sell in order to buy drugs. She spent the next 15 years cycling through probation, home confinement, juvenile detention, jail, prison and court-mandated drug treatment.
It’s no secret that trauma often drives drug misuse. Each time Keeley was arrested, she fell deeper into addiction. She spoke of her arrests as being “kidnapped and locked in a cage.” While incarcerated, she was traumatized by routine strip searches, physical violence and coerced psychiatric medication. She gave birth to her first baby while incarcerated; her daughter was ripped from her arms as she was dragged back to prison.
Between arrests, Keeley tried mightily to hide her drug use. Her daughter was her “whole world,” she said, and she knew that seeking help in a drug-related emergency could trigger a child services investigation. Plus, Keeley’s experiences of police “help” had often involved them confiscating her clean needles and even her naloxone, the life-saving antidote to opioid overdose. So she avoided calling 911, sometimes even during health emergencies like overdoses.
The threat of returning to jail is an obstacle to seeking emergency help for many people who use drugs. Black and Indigenous people and other people of color who use drugs are especially under threat, given the racist foundations of U.S. policing. A 2020 study in Criminal Justice Policy Review notes, “Overdose calls predict Black arrests in poorer urban areas,” and of course, high rates of racist police-perpetrated violence mean that calling 911 in the face of a dire emergency may mean risking even more bloodshed.
Thus, police involvement discourages people who use drugs from seeking medical care. Meanwhile, the criminal system only offers them false — and sometimes life-threatening — “solutions.”
In early 2019, my sister was sentenced to two years in drug court, which meant entering a court-mandated treatment program — the type of program Biden is pushing to expand. Keeley was frequently drug-tested; she knew that if there were illicit drugs in her system, she could be sent back to jail — and possibly locked up for longer than if she’d been sentenced by a regular court. Keeley didn’t feel ready to quit heroin, but she tried, in order to comply with court orders.
When you stop using heroin, your tolerance lowers, making you more vulnerable to overdose. When Keeley relapsed, she died.
My sister breathed her last breath in a tent under a viaduct, hiding from the police.
Nearly a year and a half after Keeley’s death, the police remain pervasive in politicians’ proposals for addressing this crisis. The Biden administration has extended a harmful ban on fentanyl-like substances, and there’s a broad bipartisan push for the expansion of drug courts — the coercive programs in which Keeley died. Meanwhile, politicians and prosecutors are championing drug-induced homicide laws, which are now on the books in 20 states, and can result in murder charges for those who share drugs with someone who overdoses. These laws, like the criminal legal system as a whole, impact Black, Indigenous and people of color more severely. Drug-induced homicide laws don’t prevent overdose — in fact, they discourage people from calling 911.
It’s time to acknowledge we can’t arrest our way out of the overdose crisis.
Fortunately, a better call to action is in the air, thanks to the work of abolitionist organizers: Defund the police, and redirect resources toward life-affirming priorities like housing, food assistance, education and noncoercive health care. Supporting people in meeting their basic needs, including housing and cost-free medical care, is one of the most important ways in which we can help people avoid overdose.
Funds should also be channeled toward addressing some of the specific needs of people who use drugs, like offering widespread drug-checking to ensure drugs’ purity and distributing fentanyl test strips and naloxone. We need supervised consumption sites, with medical staff who can help prevent or treat overdoses and offer clean needles. Such sanctioned programs exist in at least 11 countries, with clear success and no recorded overdose deaths. Medication-assisted addiction treatment — including heroin-assisted treatment (which is currently available in seven countries, and is highly effective) — should be cost-free and accessible to all who want it.
Additionally, we must fund honest drug education designed to help people make informed decisions about their use. As neuroscientist Carl Hart has emphasized, simply teaching people about the dangers of mixing heroin and alcohol, for example, could save lives.
In moving away from police and toward these life-affirming priorities, we must also directly challenge drug criminalization, a white supremacy-driven system that hurts the people it purports to help. Full legalization, undertaken in a just way that attends to impacted people’s needs and prioritizes providing real reparations to communities harmed by the drug war, can promote true drug safety.
Finally, we can’t separate the violence of drug policing from the violence of the entire institution of policing. Working to legalize drugs should also push us to challenge the concept of criminalization more broadly.
What would’ve happened if, instead of being policed and criminalized, my sister would’ve been given tools to survive while using drugs?
What if we decided it was never acceptable to kidnap anyone and lock them in a cage?
What if instead of grounding our “solutions” in capturing and torturing people, we grounded them in principles of autonomy, care and noncoercive support?
For the sake of untold numbers of people at risk of overdose in the coming months and years, I hope we can start asking these questions. Instead of prioritizing the survival of a racist and harmful policing system, we must start treating people who use drugs as human beings and prioritize their lives.