Time for the hard sell on safe injection sites | Mike Newall

A view inside the pop-up safe injection site in Moss Park in Toronto.

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 Philly.

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 it.

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 Quiñones-Sánchez 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.