Here’s the thing about those radical, controversial, crazy safe-injection sites that Toronto and other Canadian cities are using to save lives amid their own heroin crisis:
They’re not that crazy at all.
What strikes me most after visiting Toronto, and after talking with activists here since I got back, is the realization that Philly could be doing the same thing – and quickly.
As I wrote Sunday, Toronto opened an interim safe-injection site at the city’s downtown needle exchange after activists set up a pop-up site in a city park. Too many people were dying. Now, more lives are being saved.
But to go about the business of saving lives, Toronto drew on resources that Philly has had in place for decades. And we have people on the ground who are just as passionate as the Toronto advocates who made it happen.
Take the needle exchange in Kensington. It serves 10,000 people a year, offering clean works and health services. That’s 10,000 people – potential victims all – we have a shot at saving right now. Instead, we send them away with their opioids to use and die on the streets.
When they drop, we ask outreach workers to run outside to save them. A safe-injection site would simply allow those people to come inside.
The same goes for the neighborhoods most devastated by the crisis, like the blocks around the shuttered heroin encampment along Gurney Street. What would change if, as in Toronto, outreach teams set up a table and tent? Nothing. Except fewer people would be dead. And there would be fewer needles on the ground, fewer people using on corners that should belong to children, not heroin.
What’s holding us back is that those advocates who already know what to do can’t get assurances from our elected officials that they won’t get arrested if they start doing it.
No one’s asking elected officials to personally cut a ribbon or dig a shovel into the dirt. Just let advocates get to work.
A safe-injection site is simply the logical, inevitable, and moral extension of the harm-reduction services we are already offering in this city.
Some in politics are standing up. Last month, Larry Krasner, possibly our next district attorney, offered his support of sites, telling the Atlantic that if privately run facilities began offering services, his office would not begin prosecution.
If a site was “responsibly run, appropriate and well-operated, and was saving lots of lives – why would any district attorney want to prosecute that?” Krasner told me Monday.
And Tuesday, in what should be looked upon as a major victory for advocates, Councilwoman Helen Gym said what needs to be said on safe injection when I asked where she stood.
“I’ve always felt that we need to treat addiction as a public-health issue and not solely a criminal one,” she wrote by email from Copenhagen while on a transit-improvement trip. “Safe-injection sites are going to be controversial and require us to think and act differently, but they are among the most promising new approaches to come forward while we work to end the opioid crisis. I support establishing one in Philadelphia.”
Now her colleagues need to follow.
I’m not trying to oversimplify this decision. We would be the first American city to offer safe injection. Logistically, the tools are there. But the political courage must follow. Emergency steps need to be taken. And hard citywide conversations must begin.
Far too much misinformation and stigma still cloud the conversation.
My inbox is evidence of it.
Let them die, some responses read. It’s their choice, read another. And: It’s not a disease. These writers argue that the sites would only promote drug use, violence and blight. They’re wrong. Evidence from dozens of cities across the globe show these sites save lives, usher more into treatment, and help impacted neighborhoods. Those are facts.
If you believe in safe-injection sites, you need to tell your friends and relatives why they are a good idea. Stigma kills. And a failure to fight that stigma falls on all of us.
Tell them that I’d say yes to one in my backyard if that meant saving lives. I hope you would, too.