Five times as many people died from opioid overdose in 2016 than in 1999 in the U.S. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total “economic burden” of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.” As cities struggle to curb opioid-related deaths, city authorities in Philadelphia have begun to discuss the prospects of opening safe injection sites in efforts to curb the impact of a crisis that claimed more than 1,000 lives in Philly last year alone.
Following a report released from the mayor’s office in May 2017, Philadelphia officials announced last week that the city is calling for the opening of a safe injection site to curb opioid-related deaths. The report released last year, titled “The Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic in Philadelphia,” called for a number of recommendations, which included the safe injection site suggestion. The site would be a clean and safe environment for opioid users to administer the drugs and have medical staff present in case they overdose. Establishing such sites could help save between 25 and 75 opioid users a year. Last year, 1,200 people died from overdosing on opioids in Philadelphia alone.
Last November, a delegation from Philadelphia went to Vancouver, which has had a safe injection site for 15 years, and Seattle, where city authorities have set aside $1.3 billion to set up sites in the city. Although the concept is not uncommon elsewhere in America, Philadelphia is having a difficult time finding the right place for the safe injection site since development, especially building safe injection sites, in Philly’s neighborhoods is not always welcome. Other cities where drug abuse is common like San Francisco and Denver have looked into opening their own safe injection sites, but none of the sites have materialized just yet.
In fact, opposition to Philadelphia’s existing methadone clinics, which usually treat recovering opioid users, is widespread in the city. In 2013, the city passed a bill requiring methadone clinics to acquire zoning variances in the area where the clinics are located. Since outlawing methadone clinics is technically illegal, the bill essentially gave residents’ opposition stronger grounding.
The lack of support for the methadone clinics in Philadelphia is not ungrounded, given that opioid usage and abuse is not uncommon in the city. Kensington, where the opioid crisis has been largely concentrated, used to be home to the East Coast’s largest open air drug markets, and many have reported that seeing someone overdosing or using opioids is an everyday happening. And given that the most recent rate of death by opioid overdose surpasses the murder rate by four to one, opposition to the proposed safe injection sites is not surprising.
There is some support, however, for helping opioid addicts in Philly, despite the large-scale opposition. Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, partial representative of Kensington in City Council, is one of such proponents. However, when the city announced its intention to build a safe injection site, Sánchez voiced her opposition to the plan on grounds that the city was rushing with its decision and that it was just to make headlines.
“When we have hundreds on the street but 25 [percent] of our treatment beds are vacant, that is a failure of the system, and we need to do something about it,” she said at the Philly City Council. “We are abdicating our responsibility to address both the health crisis of addiction and the community crisis that these encampments have created in the Barrio. Opening an injection site without a real plan in place will further entrench the crisis in Kensington.”