Philadelphia's mayor says his fellow Democrats just voted for more people to die from drug overdoses. Experts say he's right.

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Philadelphia's mayor says his fellow Democrats just voted for more people to die from drug overdoses. Experts say he's right.
People gather on a street used by heroin users in Kensington on July 19, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.Spencer Platt/Getty Images
  • Philadelphia lawmakers voted this month to essentially ban supervised injection sites.
  • The vote came despite evidence that the sites significantly reduced overdose deaths.
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Over the last decade, about 10,000 people in Philadelphia have injected drugs, overdosed, and died.

Each year, hundreds of people pass out on the city's streets and do not wake up. With the arrival of fentanyl, it's trending worse, too: 10 years ago, fewer than 500 Philadelphians suffered a fatal overdose; in 2021, the overdose death toll was almost 1,300, at least 8 in 10 fatalities attributable to drugs laced with the powerful opioid.

Public health is not a field for moralizing. People should not, generally, inject into their bodies a substance they bought with cash from a stranger on the street. But people will because they are physically hooked on those substances. And many will not resort to best practices, like using a clean needle, and contract diseases that require lifelong treatment.

Kensington, a neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia, is ground zero for this behavior. It's home to open-air dealing in heroin and "tranq," an animal sedative that can result in limbs being amputated. But people all over Philadelphia, addicted and unhoused, can be found lying motionless on sidewalks or a stranger's front stoop.

That is the state of things. Knowing this, and presumably being aware of the science — a supervised injection site in Vancouver, Canada, reduced overdose deaths by 35%, according to one study, and those who used the site were more likely to also seek drug treatment — members of Philadelphia's city council, almost all Democrats who style themselves progressive, this month acted in near-unanimity to effectively prohibit something that does not currently exist: safe spaces where someone can inject a drug, with a clean needle, in front of someone trained to address an overdose.

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"This is another tragic page in a tragic story," Scott Burris, director of the Center of Public Health Law Research at Temple University, told Insider. "Philadelphia had a chance to come together to do something that needed to be done, that is backed by evidence and experience. It pushed a lot of buttons, but we should as a community [have] been able to talk it through and get to a solution."

Philadelphia's city council did allow for the possibility of a site opening in one western district of the city, and some members suggested they were only asking for more community input, although cynics would note such input tends to be, predictably, of the "not in my backyard" variety. Councilman Isaiah Thomas, who has a reputation as a progressive, likened supervised injection sites to billionaires steamrolling opposition and constructing a downtown sports arena, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. "People would be up in arms," Thomas said.

Mike Driscoll, a Democrat representing the city's northeast, was adamant that he was opposing the whole idea.

"We need to put these folks into compassionate, long-term care and get them on the road to recovery, not postpone the inevitable," he said, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In that, most of Philly's elected Democrats are in an uneasy but very real alliance with Donald Trump. In 2019, the former president's Department of Justice sued to stop a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, Safehouse, from opening what would have been the country's first safe injection site, citing a federal law originally aimed at crack houses. The Biden administration is looking to have the case dismissed.

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The bipartisan fantasy is admirable, albeit unfunded. Instead of enabling the safer consumption of a dangerous drug, the benevolent state could instead extend its iron hand to the afflicted user, leading them down the path to treatment (paying for it, even: the food; the shelter; the counseling) and eventual reintegration with society, doing what is best for them, whether they can see that or not.

The trouble, according to Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is that this approach does not usually work, at least in the scaled-down versions of mandatory treatment that actually exist. "The data does not show that it's beneficial to put someone in jail or prison or force them against their will to go to treatment," she told The New York Times last year.

Besides, Philadelphia, a city battling not just drug addiction but poverty and gun violence, is not about to open drug treatment resorts. The stopgap solution — a safe place to inject drugs — falls far short of eliminating the scourge of drug addiction but exists just a couple hours north in New York City, where advocates say in just its first few months, it prevented hundreds of potential overdose deaths.

Elected officials are probably being honest when they say that most of the constituents they hear from are opposed to the idea. Most people would rather a cute café open up next door and, for that, maybe they should not be blamed. But the seeming lack of public support is also a product of the fact that few in public office have been interested in putting in the work.

Ronda Goldfein, a cofounder of Safehouse and executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, said she doesn't blame Philadelphians for being skeptical in the absence of leadership.

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"I think that they are perhaps so angry, understandably, because the city has failed them," Goldfein told Insider.

To residents who have seen public drug use extend across the city, opening a safe injection site may sound like opening a Walmart Supercenter for narcotics — another boneheaded solution imposed by a negligent city government that will only attract more of the same.

The irony is that what angers many residents the most — people doing drugs in public, from the subway to the alley behind their home, leaving needles in the reach of pets and children — is just what safe injection sites are intended to address.

"We'll take it all inside," as Goldfein puts it. "We are offering a solution to the problem they're complaining about."

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is one of the few public officials to explicitly endorse supervised injection sites. He leaves office in a few months, and his likely Democratic successor, Cherelle Parker, has already endorsed the city council's de facto ban.

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After the council's veto-proof decision, Kenney told reporters that opponents would have blood on their hands.

"If you really want to say that you want to fix this problem or address this problem, then address it, and stop trying to put your head in the sand and say this doesn't work — because it works," Kenney told reporters. It works in Canada and Europe, he said; it works in New York City. "If [city] council wants to continue to avoid this and resist it, it's fine," Kenney said, "but it means you're gonna have people dying as a result of it."

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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