When the Eagles won the Super Bowl, it took me a moment to release a primal yell before running into the street to hug neighbors, chant slogans, and thank God for giving Philadelphia this one pure moment of greatness.
I will celebrate our team at Thursday’s parade. But on Friday, I will get to back to work, because when the confetti stops falling, we’ll still havet the highest poverty rate of any big city in America. We’ll still be the place whose estimated 1,200 overdose deaths in a year outpace any other major American city.
That’s why, on Friday evening, I will join with Praise 107.9-FM to host “Safe Injection Sites: A Community Forum.”
This community discussion will feature voices from recovering people and city officials, community activists and treatment professionals. It will feature both sides of the debate around the Kenney administration’s proposal to support privately run safe injection sites — places where people can shoot drugs under medical supervision to prevent overdoses.
And it is a needed discussion. Not just because the Kenney administration’s support for safe injection sites is based largely on research from Europe and Canada, where treatment is more accessible because health care is less expensive, and where criminal justice systems operate differently. Discussion is also necessary because the proposal seems to have been made without widespread community input.
It’s not enough to sanitize the name of such facilities by calling them Comprehensive User Engagement Sites (CUES). Nor is it enough to assure us that there is a long-term strategy without actually revealing what that plan entails. The voices of Philadelphians must be included in anything that would have us support the use of illegal drugs in our name — even if that drug use is supposed to eventually save lives.
As a man who has gone through drug addiction and come out the other side, I know how hard it can be to recover. That’s why, after 21 years clean, I empathize with those who are struggling to go a single day without drugs.
However, this is about more than the addicts themselves. It is about a city where families were torn apart and properties seized during the crack era. It is about a place where jails and morgues were filled to bursting with black and brown bodies, where the criminalization of the disease of addiction was encouraged, and where the damage is painfully apparent even decades later.
And, yes, that means that this is about race, because most of those who are now dying from overdoses are white, and the language around addiction has changed along with the complexion of the addicts.
In a city that has allowed a drug culture to flourish in impoverished communities such as Kensington, we must face the fact that open-air drug sales would never be allowed in whiter and more affluent areas. Then we must ask ourselves why we haven’t considered simply cutting off the drug supply that flows so readily through our most challenged communities.
Congressional candidate Nina Ahmad raised that point when I asked her about safe injection sites during a radio interview, opining that affluent areas such as Chestnut Hill do not have open-air drug markets while impoverished areas such as Kensington do.
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents Kensington, put it more bluntly when we last talked about the issue of safe injection sites: “What we have is a perfect storm of concentrated open-air market that many people — particularly the people who live there — will say we have contained it in an area and almost allowed it to evolve,” Sánchez told me in a radio interview. “And then the addiction and the pipeline. The federal government has come in and closed many … city-funded mental health organizations who have been the pill operating mills that have led to this. So this is a perfect storm of a lot of bad policies, a lot of lack of oversight, and now we have this huge problem.”
I don’t believe we need another bad policy, and that’s how I see safe injection sites — as bad policy. But I also know there are those who believe safe injection sites are the answer to the opioid epidemic.
That’s why I’ve invited fellow columnist Mike Newall to share why his reporting and life experience have led him to support safe injection sites.
City Councilwoman Cindy Bass will join us on the panel as well, along with representatives from the Kenney administration, Council President Darrell Clarke, and Sánchez.
But in my view, the most important voices we’ll hear are from the community itself. Kensington-based activists Gilberto Gonzales and Pastor Michael Couch will join us, along with addiction specialist Louis Cain from the Goldman Clinic.
And while Pastor Albert Johnson’s decision to make Mount Tabor A.M.E. Church available for this meeting will allow us to open this important dialogue with prayer, your decision to attend will help us to close with solutions.
It is your voice, after all, that can save both lives and communities, because your voice is the one that matters most.
Safe Injection Sites: A Community Forum.
Friday, Feb. 9. 6:30 p.m. at Mount Tabor A.M.E. Church, 961 N. Seventh St. Free. Register at http://sisphilly.eventbrite.com.