The idea of opening special facilities where heroin users could inject drugs safely in Philadelphia was panned Wednesday by numerous members of Mayor Kenney’s opioid task force.
The 20-member group met for the final time to review and refine the 20 recommendations it will submit to help combat opioid abuse and addiction in the city, which had 910 fatal drug overdoses last year.
But the bulk of the two-hour meeting was spent on the controversial concept of reducing that death toll by creating injection sites that are medically supervised. Earlier this month, the task force heard a presentation by a manager of a safe-injection site in Vancouver, Canada; after a dozen years, it remains the only such program in North America.
The task force’s draft recommendation takes no position for or against such sites. It merely says Philadelphia “should explore the possibility” of a pilot program where heroin users could inject their own drugs while getting access to sterile needles, wound care, the overdose antidote drug naloxone, and referral to rehabilitation services.
Even so, the concept came in for sharp criticism Wednesday, with some members citing legal, political, and practical obstacles.
Jeremiah Daley, executive director of the Philadelphia-Camden High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, a collaborative law enforcement effort, pointed out that heroin is illegal and has no medical use, so “we have that legal issue over our heads.”
“Where would this be placed?” Daley asked. "And does that doom that location to being a repository? We’re going to essentially redline a neighborhood.”
Daley challenged the portrait painted by the Vancouver site manager, who said that city's program, called Insite, made the host neighborhood a better place to live and do business. The area “has been at a dead stop,” he said. “It didn’t improve conditions in that neighborhood.”
City Councilman David Oh said that Council would have to pass an ordinance to create a site where illegal drug activity was sanctioned. In that scenario, he said, the state legislature would likely respond by prohibiting such sites.
“We in City Council don’t have the power,” he said.
A few task force members spoke in favor of the idea, which is based on a strategy of “harm reduction” -- reducing the negative consequences of drug use while accepting that illicit drug use is a reality.
“We need radical change,” said the Rev. James P. Baker Jr., chair of the mayor’s drug and alcohol commission.
But the consensus seemed to be that if supervised injection sites were a prudent approach, there would be more of them. About 100 operate globally, primarily in Europe. Seattle last month announced that it wants to create two sites, but no locations or funding has been identified, according to the Seattle Times.
Task force cochair Thomas Farley, commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Health, asked Deputy Police Commissioner Myron Patterson for his opinion.
“I don’t see much good coming out of it,” Patterson responded. “Seattle is looking at it. Vancouver is up and running. But they aren’t Philadelphia.”
The task force plans to submit its comprehensive recommendations to the mayor within 90 days of its first meeting Jan. 11.