Dying for Solutions

City Council bans safe injection sites in Philly except in Southwest and West Philly

Safe Consumption Site in Vancouver

City Council voted 13-1 to pass a near-total ban on safe injection sites in Philadelphia; the bill now heads to Mayor Kenney to sign, with Councilmember Kendra Brooks casting the single no vote. The legislation passed Thursday will ban what are sometimes called overdose prevention centers in nearly all neighborhoods and city districts.

In the past, Kenney has expressed support for these sites as a life-saving measure, and his office says the administration “remains supportive of the overdose prevention center model and would welcome the opportunity to support safe and effective operation, following a robust community engagement and outreach process.”

When explicitly asked about this bill, Officials from the Mayor’s office refused to say what they plan to do with the new legislation. If Kenney vetoed it, the bill would return to the City Council, where a 12-member supermajority could override the veto.

“Today’s near-unanimous vote in City Council is a victory for all Philadelphians. I stand with the members of City Council who made their constituents’ voices heard loud and clear; Drug consumption sites are not the answer to this crisis,” said Cherelle Parker, Democratic Mayoral Candidate in the November 2023 election.

Unhoused folks with opioid addiction issues are a systemic problem for Kensington; City policies have failed both the community and those affected by the opioid crisis and the housing crisis. (Photo by Cory Clark)

No one can argue that there is a massive problem in Kensington and other parts of the city with people suffering from addiction using opioids in public spaces. It’s been like this for years, and politicians constantly tell people in those communities that they will do something about it. They have tried arresting their way out of it, sweeping homeless encampments, and none of it seems to work, but they keep doing it anyway.

Unhoused folks with opioid addiction issues shoot up in a public park in Kensington, risking a potential overdose in plain sight. A Safe Injection Site would offer them a safe place to use their drug of choice while offering them services to prepare them for sobriety and move them in that direction with compassionate care. (Photo by Cory Clark)

“I voted against the overlay to ban overdose prevention centers,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks (At-Large). “In the midst of an overdose crisis that is destroying families and communities, we should not be banning a tool that could save lives. We should make decisions based on evidence-based public health research, tools proven to be effective, and lived experience.”

Community members and City officials argue that drug users flock to a site, and drug dealers follow, bringing with them violence and despair, posing a danger to neighbors and law-abiding visitors. The fatal flaw in this argument is that these elements are already present, even pervasive, in places like Kensington.

The Councilmember for the District that houses Kensington calls out advocates for those suffering from addiction for prioritizing the lives and safety of people suffering from addiction, while ignoring the fact that her policy actually perpetuates the people she professes to prioritize. (Photo by Cory Clark)

“It is disturbing to me that the voices of the people who don’t have to deal with the day-to-day trauma that our children and our community have to deal with, it is disturbing to me they think that their voices should be louder than those who walk those streets every day,” said Councilmember Quetcy Lozada.

“I know from experience that people with addiction are not easy to live with, and they’re not easy to love,” said Brooks. “But when it’s your family, you don’t have a choice. You keep loving them. You keep rooting for them. You keep hoping that they will live long enough to make it to recovery.”

“How many more people need to die for NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) syndrome,” said Rosalind Pichardo, a longtime resident of the Kensington area who came to City Hall to stand against the ban. “They don’t want to see people lying on the street. They don’t want to see people injecting. Then, provide a space that would offer them recovery if needed, a safe place to use, and a place that can and will save their life if they overdose. The folks are already there, and while some of the harm reduction work has helped, more needs to be done, and safe injection sites have been proven to work.”

The legislation bans “narcotic injection sites” in every district except District 3, which has Southwest and West Philadelphia.

An encampment in Kensington, where unhoused folks watch over each other to try and prevent overdoses because there aren’t any safe injection sites in Philadelphia. (Photo by Cory Clark)

“When we are talking about saving lives, we should not take anything off the table,” said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents District 3 but wasn’t present for the vote on Thursday. “I know my colleagues are just as concerned as I am by the drug crisis, and I am unwilling to deny my constituents their right to at least consider a tool that has been proven to save lives in other jurisdictions.”

At least 100 supervised injection sites operate worldwide, mainly in Europe, Canada, and Australia. Typically, drug users come in with their own drugs and are given clean needles and a safe space to consume them. Staff are on hand with breathing masks and Naloxone, the overdose antidote, and to provide safer injection advice and information about drug treatment and other health services.

A 2014 review of 75 studies concluded such places promote safer injection conditions, reduce overdoses, and increase access to health services. Supervised injection sites were associated with less outdoor drug use and did not appear to impact crime or drug use negatively.

The review concluded Safe Injection Sites largely fulfilled their initial objectives without enhancing drug use or drug trafficking.

A Safe Injection Site in Vancouver that opened in 2003 under the name Insite and combined wraparound services with safe injection has supervised more than 3.6 million injections and responded to over 6,000 overdoses. No one has ever died there.

They found no signs of a so-called “honey pot effect” at Insite, meaning it didn’t increase or encourage drug use. Those who used Insite were more likely to initiate detoxing from drugs and access treatment like methadone than those who didn’t use the facility.

In Kensington, the people they hope not to attract to their community are already there and have been there for years. A safe injection site would have provided them with a safe place to use their drug of choice while disposing of their equipment in a safe manner as opposed to in parks and on sidewalks or even public trash cans. (Photo by Cory Clark)

In a study published in The American Journal of Preventative Medicine, UC San Diego medical sociologist Peter Davidson and RTI International epidemiologist Alex Kral studied an underground safe injection site. They found more than ninety percent of people at this location said they would otherwise have injected in a public area, and 67 percent said they would’ve disposed of their equipment unsafely. They estimated that 2300 instances of public IV drug use were prevented.

Nine percent of IV drug users at the safe injection site said they had used unclean needles, putting them at risk for HIV, Hepatitis C, and other blood-borne illnesses.

“It’s really important in this day and age, especially with so much fentanyl around and present in heroin, for people to be able to get a taste of their drugs first before injecting the full amount,” said an unhoused opioid user, who asked not to be named outside of the SEPTA station in Kensington. “People in public health are pushing for this, but it’s not something you can do if you’re rushing to get your fix because you’re in public.”

Recent preliminary figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point to the crisis potentially peaking; more than 110,000 deaths from drug overdose are predicted to have occurred during the 12-month period ending in April 2023.

One study found a 26% net reduction in overdose deaths in the area surrounding a supervised injection site in Vancouver, Canada, compared with the rest of the city.

According to the American Family Physician, a supervised injection site in Barcelona, Spain, was associated with a 50% reduction in overdose mortality from 1991 to 2008.4 People who inject drugs are significantly less likely to share needles if they regularly use supervised injection sites.

Unhoused Folks and folks dealing with opioid addiction hang out near a SEPTA station in Kensington. They are watching over one another to trying and prevent overdose, which has risen to epidemic levels in the area. (Photo by Cory Clark)

“The rise of drugs like fentanyl and xylazine are cutting lives short at an alarming rate,” said Brooks. “The number one cause of death for people under 40 in Pennsylvania is accidental overdose. Nationally, this rate has skyrocketed over the past five years, and the devastation is accelerating in Black and brown communities. In 2021, Philly had more than twice the number of overdose deaths than homicides. Our city is finally treating the gun violence crisis with the urgency it deserves. Why are we failing to treat the opioid crisis with the same urgency? These are preventable deaths that we are failing to prevent.”

“I feel like the city is failing the folks who are unhoused and with substance use disorder by not doing everything they can to save their lives,” said Pichardo. She has administered 2,000 doses of Naloxone in the last decade. Naloxone is an opioid overdose reversal medication.

“We’re saving lives, preventing overdoses; approximately 87% of our program’s active drug users have used other services as well,” said Sam Rivera, executive director of OnPoint NYC, a nonprofit that operates the nation’s first and only officially authorized “safe consumption” sites for illicit drug users. “If you get 40% to 50% of active drug users to use other services, that’s successful.” OnPoint NYC’s program has an array of supportive services, including access to addiction treatment, primary and mental health care, social service case management, and job training, as well as acupuncture, massage, and amenities like meals, showers, and laundry.

“Across the country, the overdose crisis is getting worse, and many of the approaches we have tried, from declaring a war on drugs to locking up millions of young Black men, have failed,” said Brooks. “What we’re doing is not working. This ban does nothing to address the overdose crisis, and it offers no hope to the countless people praying for their loved ones to live long enough to recover. With a deadly crisis, my focus is on finding the strategies that will prevent people from dying, and I can’t support permanently banning a proven tool to save lives.”

Unhoused folks and opioid users hang out in front of a library in Kensington because the Philadelphia government continues to double down on the same failed policies of criminalizing unhoused folks and substance abuse rather than implementing policies that have been shown to work.(Photo by Cory Clark)

“I’m focused on providing long-term housing, treatment, and recovery for those who struggle with addiction, homelessness, or mental and behavioral health issues,” said Parker. “This is just the first step. If the people choose me as their next Mayor in the November election, I look forward to convening state, federal, and local partners to address this crisis. This will be a ground-up approach, and today’s council vote protects people and communities against a policy disconnected from the people and neighborhoods in our city.”

I reached out to David Oh, and he was unable to get back to me at the time of my writing this story.

Studying Safe Injection Sites
“Studies from other countries have shown that supervised injection facilities reduce the number of overdose deaths, reduce transmission rates of infectious disease, and increase the number of individuals initiating treatment for substance use disorders without increasing drug trafficking or crime in the areas where the facilities are located.” – American Medical Association

“By providing treatment and other services, the supervised sites can lessen the risk that the next injection leads to another funeral and another shattered family.” – Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board

This May, the U.S. government announced it will fund a study to determine the costs and benefits of safe injection sites (SIF). A first for the U.S., many hope the study of facilities in New York and Rhode Island will echo the beneficial results of many international studies. (Until now, it’s been hard to research how well SIFs work in the U.S. because of moral stigma and a patchwork of drug laws at the state and local level.)

Fortunately, Australia has published many such studies. Check out this video about one recently-opened SIF and its effects.

Questions? Comments? Please speak your mind below or email editor@nwlocalpaper.com

About Cory Clark 68 Articles
Cory Clark is a photojournalist and writer who focuses on human rights and other social issues. His work has been featured in numerous media outlets, including Philly Magazine and Fortune. He has worked as a freelancer for Getty Images, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse for many years. Currently, he serves as the Senior Reporter for both Revive Local and the New MainStream Press.

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