Pubdate: Tue, 13 Feb 2018
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2018 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Mike Newall


Three weeks ago, after Philadelphia announced that it would encourage
the opening of a safe injection site, I praised the decision as a bold
kind of leadership. It showed that the city was stepping on the
national stage in the middle of a life-and-death catastrophe.

I still think that. Now the city has to sell it.

Sure, it's only been three weeks. But in the absence of an immediate
city PR strategy for saving lives - it feels funny even writing that -
you can feel myths proliferating. The city cannot simply react to the
discourse. It must help lead it.

Because the basic, undeniable truth about safe injection sites is that
the longer we wait, the longer we stall, the longer we talk past each
other and the more people die. Needless deaths. Last year's overdose
rate was three to four people dying a day.

That doesn't mean the city has to shut down dissent. Far from it. It
needs to engage it. Just as a safe injection site would meet people in
addiction where they are, the city must meet community members where
they are. Temple University researcher - and safe injection advocate -
Abraham Gutman is calling on city officials to embark on a citywide
tour to answer questions and dispel the myths. Let's do it.

And there is so much rightful anger in some of the responses to the
announcement that the city will encourage nonprofits to open a site in

People of color ask where safe injection sites were during the crack
epidemic and the years following, when black and brown people were
locked up, instead of cared for in their addiction.

This isn't just a white epidemic, of course. The New York Times has
reported that nationally, the rate of overdoses in the black community
is rising. And more than 300 people of color died from an overdose
here in just the first nine months of last year. That's the homicide
rate - and 60 percent of the total number of heroin and cocaine
overdoses at the height of the crack epidemic in the region.

But we can't wave away the ravages of the war on drugs simply by
mentioning that not all victims of the opioid crisis are white. And
just as the city has a responsibility to save lives now, it has a
responsibility to make communities of color whole - as Philadelphia
Magazine writer Ernest Owens and Gutman have suggested, starting with
a formal apology and perhaps following the lead of San Francisco,
which is retroactively expunging low-level drug convictions, as drug
laws ease.

The city's plan cannot simply be about saving the people in addiction
under the train bridges in Kensington. It has to be about righting
three decades of wrongs there - from the time white people started
leaving the neighborhood to now, when they're coming back to die in

That was one of the prevailing sentiments at a community meeting at a
Northern Liberties church last weekend organized by radio host Solomon
Jones, a critic of the sites. I was a panelist and happy to have my
say. I was grateful to see how many attended and to hear that people's
concerns were at the heart of the conversation.

But these truths exist alongside the fact that a safe injection site
is the right thing to do.

Myths abound. Some say sites would increase drug use and draw more
people to the area around the site, when study after study shows
that's not the case. There will be one difference with a safe
injection site: fewer people using drugs in the open.

Some of that misinformation has come from the highest political
echelons. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, outlining his
opposition to the sites, said Tuesday that there's no way to safely
inject drugs - ignoring the fact that no one's ever died at a safe
injection site and the fact that fentanyl itself, the biggest killer
on the street these days, is also used in hospital settings.

Council hasn't exactly been a beacon of light on the issue.
Councilwoman Cindy Bass, the chair of the city's public health and
human services committee, said she'd never heard of the phrase
"Comprehensive User Engagement Site," the city's term for a safe
injection site, which would also accommodate people who use other
drugs than opioids and which got its own section of the city's heroin
task force report a year ago.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez sent a representative who argued
that dangerous shortfalls in the city's treatment system need to be
addressed now but also argued for clearing the bridge camps on Lehigh
Avenue - when a safe injection site would cut down on public disorder
and open injections.

And Councilman David Oh, in one of the more disappointing statements
of the night, suggested the city look at less controversial measures.

If ever there was a time to get controversial, it's after 1,200 people
have died in this city from overdoses.

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Mike Newall has been writing for the Inquirer since 2010. Originally
from Brooklyn, N.Y., he has been writing about Philadelphia crime,
courts, politics, and neighborhoods since 2003. Before joining the
Inquirer, he was a staff writer and columnist for Philadelphia Weekly
and Philadelphia City Paper. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife
and dog.
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