In 1990, at the height of Philadelphia's crack epidemic, City Council adopted a resolution asking that various city officials – including the police commissioner, judges, superintendent of prisons, district attorney, and superintendent of the School District – prepare reports on the potential usefulness of providing free and low-cost crack and other narcotics to residents who were using drugs.
The goal of Resolution 789 was to explore a potential solution to the harms the illicit drug trade was causing Philadelphia, a city in which (like others) the most marginalized communities – people of color and those living at and below the poverty line – were and continue to be decimated by a failed and racist "War on Drugs."
Today, nearly 30 years after Council adopted this resolution and Philadelphia's first black mayor, W. Wilson Goode Sr., refused to follow through with it, the issues that federal, state, and local drug policies create for these communities remain the same. In fact, the resolution is a hauntingly accurate description of how drug prohibition "destroy[s] the very fabric of Philadelphia and its neighborhoods" in the midst of another drug crisis today.
Until elected officials acknowledge, through the implementation of new drug policies, that the harms – such as overdose deaths and crime – that they claim are caused by drugs are actually caused by the illicit market drug prohibition creates, history will continue to repeat itself, and the issues that plagued Philadelphia three decades ago will continue to plague the city.
If Philadelphia continues to accept the same prohibitive drug policies, people will continue to get shot, robbed, and burglarized, families will lose loved ones (and taxpayers their money) to the criminal justice system, children will remain abandoned and neglected, young people will turn to the drug trade to escape poverty, and individuals who seek refuge from trauma in illegal substances will overdose and die. Drug-related homicides and overdose deaths in Philadelphia are rising, 76 percent of people incarcerated in Philadelphia (one of America's most incarcerated cities) have a substance-use disorder, and generations of families are incarcerated together, many on drug charges.
It's time for Council to explicitly reject the War on Drugs, which disproportionately targeted minorities and resulted in violence, petty crime, death, and mass incarceration, by better supporting harm-reduction efforts. Their predecessors have already paved the road to rejection through Resolution 789, and Philadelphia's mayor and district attorney have admitted that criminalizing crack addiction was a mistake. Council should stand up for its communities by bringing this resolution (and others like it) back now, in an effort to repair some of the harm caused to communities during the crack epidemic, and the harm related to the opioid crisis today.
While proposed initiatives, such as overdose prevention sites, have been a point of contention among Council members, harm reduction is a viable solution that can help repair the communities they represent. Strategies like providing prescription crack and heroin would reduce the harm not just to people addicted to substances, but also to the neighborhoods in which they live, the neighborhoods in which they work to fund their addictions, and the neighborhoods in which they use drugs.
Solutions like these are not easy and they're no silver bullet. Federal officials have already threatened to crack down on Philadelphia should the city allow an overdose prevention site, and their response to distributing free and low-cost narcotics would likely be the same. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has disproportionately incarcerated people of color and more recently fueled the opioid crisis — has only made things worse, and it's time for Philadelphia to fight back.
The whole thing may sound extreme — fighting the feds and giving people free drugs is certainly a radical idea — but as Resolution 789 stated 30 years ago and dialogue regarding other potential solutions reflects today, "the drug problem is so acute in our city that no proposed remedy should be ruled out."
Jillian Bauer-Reese is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University, where she teaches courses called Solutions Journalism: Covering Addiction and the Kensington News Project. She is also a person in recovery. firstname.lastname@example.org @thesmallpicture. Sterling Keith Johnson is a geographer and an ACT-UP Philadelphia member. He is a person in recovery and an advocate for the rights and dignity of people with mental health conditions and substance-use disorders. email@example.com @Lb_Sterling