Three weeks after Philadelphia officials announced they would encourage the opening of a safe injection site to combat the opioid overdose crisis, Councilwoman Cindy Bass has released a five-point plan aimed at exploring alternatives to the sites — and said the city should consider expunging the records of people convicted of low-level drug offenses.
City officials said much of the plan was already included in their own task force’s plan to fight the opioid epidemic, and expungement of records would likely require a change in state or federal law. But the suggestion has gained steam in recent weeks among the site’s supporters and detractors alike.
People of color have questioned why such harm-reduction measures were not instituted during the crack epidemic of the 1970s and 1980s, when communities of color were decimated by overdoses and strict sentencing policies that could land even low-level offenders in prison for decades. Advocates have suggested following the model of San Francisco, which in the wake of marijuana legalization in California has begun to retroactively expunge certain drug records.
Bass said the city should “investigate” similar measures, adding she got the idea from a panel discussion on safe injection sites that radio host Solomon Jones organized last Friday. She said the city should consider expunging misdemeanor drug convictions and some felonies as long as those convicted have no other convictions after a certain number of years.
“If we want to move forward, we have to look backwards,” Bass said, and stressed that her plan, released Wednesday, is aimed simply at starting a conversation. “This might be something worth exploring.”
Advocates have also stressed the importance of addressing the wrongs of the war on drugs as Philadelphia moves toward opening a safe injection site. In an op-ed published on Philly.com Thursday and in the Inquirer on Friday, District Attorney Larry Krasner and Mayor Kenney wrote that society had failed people in addiction during the crack epidemic.
“Many people spent time in jail when they should have spent time in treatment,” they wrote. “No doubt, criminalizing addiction happened in part because the people affected were mainly African American, Latino and poor. While we can’t undo years of regressive policy, we can take an intentional approach to treating addiction and drug-related law offenses with that history in mind.”
They and other advocates have noted that, while the majority of fatal overdose victims in Philadelphia are white, people of color are dying of overdoses at increased rates as well. People of color made up about 40 percent of Philadelphia’s overdose deaths in the first three quarters of 2017. In 2016, 398 people of color died of overdoses — more than were murdered in the city.
Krasner and Kenney wrote that a safe injection site would save lives, decrease the public disorder stemming from drug use that has plagued long-neglected neighborhoods like Kensington — one of the most likely candidates for a site — and link people in addiction to treatment and housing. Since the announcement, harm-reduction activists have warned that delaying the opening of a site can be deadly: “While people are discussing this and working this out, bodies are piling up,” Jose DeMarco, a member of the advocacy group Save Our Lives Collective, said in an interview last week.
“Harm reduction is simple: If you are going to use drugs, then do it safely,” Sterling Johnson, another SOL Collective member, wrote to Bass on Twitter after her appearance at Friday’s panel. “The criminalization of drug use is the harm. Drug use is a symptom of other issues. Focusing on stopping drug use doesn’t solve anything.”
Bass said she had not yet been convinced on safe injection sites, and said that she had been struck by people in recovery who spoke at Friday night’s panel: “None of those people used safe injection sites to get clean.” Instead, her plan calls for the city to invest in recovery programs that already exist in Kensington, for the medical examiner to use toxicology reports to track overdose data, and for the city to fund prevention programs and monitor doctors alleged to overprescribe opioid medications.
Alicia Taylor, the communications director for the city Department of Health, said the city was already undertaking many of those proposals: A television and social-media campaign against abusing prescription painkillers launched last year, and a second wave is starting this year. The city has also launched a program to educate doctors on overprescribing opioids, and is increasing medically assisted treatment slots and outreach to overdose survivors.
“We’re happy to see that she views this as valuable work and we look forward to working with her,” Taylor said. “We already do some of the things she’s recommended, and we’d love to get her support on it.”