Mayor Kenney’s January announcement welcoming private entities to create comprehensive user engagement sites (CUES) – evidence-based lifesaving facilities that reduce overdose death and infection transmission without increasing drug use or crime — put the administration in the national spotlight. Time magazine led with the headline, ”The Country’s First Safe Injection Facility May Soon Open in Philadelphia.” Fox News reported that “Philadelphia aims to become first U.S. city to legalize safe injection sites.”
The announcement drew not only attention but also praise. A piece by the editorial board of the New York Times called on other cities to “follow the lead” of Philadelphia. The executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance tweeted, “bravo to Philadelphia for its leadership,” for approving CUES, and activists advocating for CUES in New York City have been pointing to Philadelphia as an example of leadership.
Five months later and not much has happened. The Department of Public Health hosted a few informational meetings on the issue. While these meetings are extremely important — I personally called on city officials to go on tour making the case for CUES — they should not replace concrete action. City Council’s Committee on Public Health and Human Services — led by vocal CUES opponents Cindy Bass and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez — hosted two hearings on the city’s response to the opioid epidemic, then went silent on the issue. For example, the response to the drug crisis is not on the agenda for the May meeting of the committee. Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner co-authored an op-ed for Philly.com calling the criminalization of crack “a mistake” and calling for a different response to today’s crisis, and we haven’t heard from them since on this issue.
Meanwhile, in the weeks following Philadelphia’s announcement, San Francisco announced that the city will open two safe-injection sites around July 1. Unlike Philly, San Francisco’s announcement came as it was already in the process of choosing providers from a group of nonprofits working in the harm-reduction space. While San Francisco will not fund the sites, private funding already exists.
San Francisco is not the only one lapping us. After months of activism and advocacy work by community groups in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to open four safe-injection sites (to be called Overdose Prevention Centers) in identified neighborhoods in the next six to 12 months. The announcement came a day after New York City Council Member Steve Levin and 10 other activists were arrested while blocking a road to call attention for the need for safe-injection sites.
A concrete plan, time frame, locations, community process, and politicians championing the cause all are elements that were missing from Philadelphia’s announcement. The most we got from our City Council was a one-line comment from Helen Gym calling the January announcement “bold, brave, and lifesaving.” I can’t imagine a single City Council member willing to be arrested for the cause of saving the lives of people who use drugs.
This all becomes much more frustrating when it is framed within the need in Philadelphia. Our city of 1.5 million people saw 1,217 overdose deaths in 2017, only 224 less than the 1,441 in New York City, a city of 8.5 million. In San Francisco, a city about half the size of Philadelphia, about 200 people died of overdose in 2016.
Ignoring the evidence on the ability of CUES to save lives is willful ignorance. Publicly stating that the evidence is compelling, admitting that there is a way to save lives, and still not taking any concrete action is something much worse.
Philadelphia will not be the first city in the nation with safe-injection sites. But we still have the opportunity to save Philadelphian lives, and every day that passes more lives are lost. Even though the words of city officials are loud, we must remember that actions always speak louder than words.