by Jenavieve Hatch

Aug. 24, 2020

Someone experiencing addiction is not something you should call 911 about. This is part of a HuffPost series looking at alternatives to policing. You can read the other pieces here.

Someone is doing drugs outside in my neighborhood. Should I call 911?

The U.S. has long taken a punitive approach to substance addiction, rather than focusing on harm reduction and public health. Because of this, more than 450,000 people, including juveniles, are currently incarcerated for drug offenses, according to a 2020 Prison Policy report.

Those people are disproportionately Black, Latino and Indigenous people ― groups that already face higher rates of poverty and health problems, two factors that contribute to substance misuse. Criminalizing drug use has not cured the country of its addictions; in fact, people recently released from jails and prisons are the most likely population to overdose.

“We know that when people get arrested, that doesn’t mean that they get help,” said Daniel Raymond, deputy director of planning and policy at the Harm Reduction Coalition.

Plus, calling the police on a person using drugs can be dangerous. Police have long used drugs to justify violent killings of Black peopleBreonna Taylor was killed in Louisville, Kentucky, when police entered her home under a no-knock warrant for a drug bust; law enforcement departments also justified the killings of Terence Crutcher in Oklahoma and Laquan McDonald in Chicago by saying that both men had PCP in their systems at the time of their deaths. The police officer who killed Philando Castile in front of his girlfriend and their child in Saint Paul, Minnesota, reportedly did so after smelling marijuana.

So what should I do instead of calling the police?

In most cases, nothing. If our neighbor is smoking weed on their front porch in a state where it’s illegal, don’t call the police. If a person experiencing homelessness is using drugs in a public park, and they aren’t causing harm to someone else, don’t call the police.

“When we see people drinking at a backyard barbecue or at a bar, we don’t automatically lead to the assumption that substance misuse is happening,” Raymond said. “The presence of drug use in and of itself is not a sign of something inherently harmful going on.”

Now, if the person seems to be experiencing an overdose, you also have options. If you’re worried specifically about an opioid overdose, Raymond said that one thing you can do in advance is be trained on how to administer naloxone, a medication that can stop an overdose. That would allow you to act on your own, without involving police.

If someone is clearly in physical distress or seems to be suffering from another type of overdose, calling 911 is still the best option to get quick medical help.

How can I help advocate for better policies around drug addiction and substance misuse?

Investing in harm reduction policies that treat substance misuse and addiction as public health issues requiring communal resources rather than criminal punishment is a way to make your community safer. Connecting with a local harm reduction organization is a great place to start. If there isn’t one in your community, why not start one?

You can also advocate for services like safe syringe exchange programs and free STI and HIV testing.

“These are our neighbors, these are our family members,” Raymond said. “Some of the more visible manifestations of drug use are a signal that a community has some deeper challenges around housing and health care access that they need to think about, because this isn’t something that the police can solve.”

Where can I go for more information and resources?

  • Harm Reduction Coalition: A national group of needle exchange providers, public health advocates and drug users focused on providing safe community care for people with substance addictions.

  • Get Naloxone Now: An online resource providing free training on how to administer naloxone, as well as how to respond to general opioid overdoses.

  • National Coalition For The Homeless: A coalition of people who are currently experiencing homelessness, and those who did previously, who are committed to ending homelessness through community services, legal support, research and data.

Read other stories in this series