Blue light bulbs to discourage shooting up will appease neighbors, but alienate those struggling with addiction | Opinion

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On Jan. 20, the City will distribute blue “party” bulbs at the El Barrio Es Nuestro meeting in an attempt to discourage individuals who use IV drugs from injecting on the stoops of residents’ homes.

It’s like a citronella candle, but instead of mosquitoes, it repels people who use intravenous drugs. Don’t want them near your house? These light bulbs will chase them away.

That’s the idea behind one of the city’s latest “quality-of-life” initiatives in Kensington and Fairhill.

On Jan. 20, the city will distribute blue “party” bulbs at the El Barrio es Nuestro meeting in an attempt to discourage individuals who use IV drugs from injecting on the stoops of residents’ homes. The bulbs are part of a neighborhood cleanup kit, which also includes a Grip’n Grab tool to pick up drug-related trash, and a pamphlet titled “Tips for Human Kindness.”

Unfortunately, this new initiative is anything but a kind approach. It is, instead, an attempt to appease neighbors with little compassion for how the actions will impact people who use drugs and those struggling with addiction.

The city’s theory is that since blue light makes it difficult for individuals to see their veins, people will not inject there.

There is virtually no evidence to support this.

In a 2013 study, researchers interviewed 18 people who were either using or had used intravenous drugs about their willingness to inject drugs in public restrooms with blue lights. The study concluded that blue light is not likely to deter intravenous drug use. Instead, it found that it may actually increase injuries related to IV drug use due to individuals’ willingness to inject there despite the limited visibility that blue light creates.

Similarly, a 2010 study found that a majority of the 31 individuals interviewed were prepared to use IV drugs in conditions that had been designed with blue lights to deter intravenous drug use. That study also found that people were more likely to injure themselves while using drugs in an environment equipped with blue lights.

It’s also worth noting that there’s no research on the effectiveness of blue bulbs in open outdoor spaces, such as blocks of rowhouses filled with street lights and porch light bulbs. Also, let’s not forget that it’s only dark for so many hours in a day, so even if blue light did effectively deter drug use, it would only do so at night.

“This is not to get them to stop using drugs,” Alicia Taylor, a City of Philadelphia communications specialist, told Billy Penn’s Michaela Winberg, who reported earlier on the initiative. “This is in response to neighbors who were upset about people using on their front steps.”

And that’s exactly the message that these bulbs will send. Installing blue lights is just another reminder to people who use drugs that they are unwanted. “The neighborhood,” these bulbs will tell them, “is certainly not yours.” And isolation – like the kind an initiative like this perpetuates – puts those individuals at risk for continued drug misuse.

Pushing one of our city’s most marginalized communities further into the cracks of Kensington and Fairhill will not decrease public drug use and is dangerous to individuals who use. Not only are individuals more likely to injure themselves in a blue-light environment, but the more places society chases them out of, the more difficult they’ll be to find when they’re in need of the community’s help.

Should residents be forced to carry their groceries and their children over people and paraphernalia as they walk up their steps and open their front doors? Absolutely not. But there’s another solution — actually supported by science — that reduces public drug use and the risk that our most vulnerable population doesn’t overdose and never get found.

If the city wants to reduce public drug use, we need to give people who use drugs somewhere safe and without stigma to consume. Safe injection sites provide people who use drugs with a stigma-free space to use them. Since Insite opened in 2003 in Vancouver, it’s reduced infectious disease transmission, connected individuals with addiction treatment, and decreased the number of people injecting on the street.

Hopefully citizens who support blue light bulbs can see that their effort to decrease public drug use would be better solved by opening a safe injection site – a more humanized, evidence-based idea that Gov. Wolf’s state emergency declaration might make possible, and one to which Philly’s police commissioner recently said he’s no longer opposed.

Jillian Bauer-Reese is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University, where she teaches a course called Solutions Journalism: Covering Addiction. She is also a person in long-term recovery. Contact her at or@thesmallpicture.