As Philadelphia’s municipal primary draws near, some City Council hopefuls have made opposition to supervised injection sites key parts of their campaigns.
But because the proposal exists in a legal no-man’s-land — with a federal lawsuit over its legality still moving through the courts — it’s unclear what a sitting Council member could do, at least legislatively, to block the opening of a supervised injection site in Philadelphia.
When Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration announced last year it would allow creation of a place where people can use drugs under medical supervision, be revived if they overdose, and access treatment, city officials said they didn’t need Council’s approval. A private entity, not the city, is to fund and operate the site.
Still, said Alicia Taylor, the city’s deputy communications director, “We believe overdose-prevention sites will save lives, and we plan to actively engage all local stakeholders, including Council members, before any facility is opened."
At a symposium on the opioid crisis at the University of Pennsylvania on Friday, Kenney called the city’s overdose rate “one of the worst crises, I think, that I’ve lived through.”
“We’re looking at all the different possibilities to address this problem, including overdose prevention sites,” he said. “Which, of course, in an election year, you get pilloried because you even think about saving people’s lives. People complain about that.”
Kenney added on Friday that quality of life issues in Kensington, the neighborhood most affected by open drug use and overdoses, and which is widely considered the most likely place for a site to open, might be addressed by opening a site where people can inject indoors and have a safe place to discard their needles.
Advocates, too, say the sites are necessary to save lives in a city where more than 3,000 people have died of overdoses over the last three years, making Philadelphia’s the worst urban opioid crisis in the country. Last year, a nonprofit, Safehouse, incorporated to open a site, but has not signed a lease or raised enough funding to open.
But that’s not to say Council hasn’t floated efforts to block a site. Earlier this year, after Safehouse announced that it had been offered a lease in a commercial building in his district in Kensington, Councilman Mark Squilla — whose opponent in the 1st District, Lou Lanni, also opposes the sites — introduced a bill to rezone the property for residential use only.
State Rep. Angel Cruz, who opposes the sites, also mentioned zoning changes to block one from opening. He’s challenging Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez for her 7th District seat, which also includes parts of Kensington.
Squilla said his rezoning bill, first reported by WHYY, is an effort to give residents input; a rezoning effort would require hearings by the city’s zoning board. But all the zoning talk may be a moot point, Squilla acknowledged, because there’s nothing in city regulations or zoning code to allow or restrict a supervised injection site.
“If they say it’s a legal act, and permitted within a certain zoning, and that zoning is there, then [a supervised injection site] could operate,” he said. “But I guess the [federal] court ruling will decide how that will move forward," he said, referring to a request by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to clarify whether the sites are legal.
Erika Almirón, a longtime activist who supports the sites and is running for an at-large seat, says she believes her role in the debate is to “facilitate conversation." (Most of the support for a supervised injection site among Council candidates comes from those vying for at-large seats, who are generally expected to yield to district Council members on real estate matters, such as zoning.)
“We need to really address addiction and what it’s meant for communities of color. How do we rectify what the War on Drugs has done to our communities?" she said. “But our communities are also still suffering from addiction. How do we address that fact, with all of us? I can see some healing that can happen about having a forthright conversation on what we do next."
Former Pennsylvania Gov. and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, one of Safehouse’s board members, said he believes a site would need commercial zoning. Failing a veto from the mayor, Rendell said, he would consider legal action if a Council member attempted to spot-zone a property to block a facility.
Rendell has experience backing a harm-reduction measure: As mayor in 1992, he supported Prevention Point, the city’s first — and only — needle exchange, despite the fact that Pennsylvania law doesn’t allow such a service. Then, Council didn’t have much of a role in the proceedings, he said.
“I discussed it with Council President [John F.] Street, and whoever was the councilperson who represented that district at the time," he said. “They were much more understanding."
Still, five years after it opened, some Council members tried to shut down the needle exchange. Providing clean syringes has long been accepted globally as a public health measure, given how HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious disease can be spread via reused needles.
Yet one councilwoman expressed concerns that the program “operated in residential areas and may promote the use of illegal drugs," and called the exchange “morally wrong,” an Inquirer reporter wrote in 1997. Such arguments now are being deployed against a supervised injection site.
The proposal was tabled after other Council members, including Kenney, then a councilman-at-large, opposed it. Needle exchanges are still technically illegal in Pennsylvania, but operate in several cities at the discretion of local prosecutors. The success of Philadelphia’s own needle exchange, Rendell said, is what’s driving him to back Safehouse.
Quiñones-Sánchez, who has represented Kensington for years, said she opposes a supervised injection site because she believes the city hasn’t shown it’s capable of running one properly. If a site is to open in the neighborhood, she said, the city must win the trust of residents in a neighborhood neglected for decades and decimated by mass incarcerations — mainly of people of color — during the 1980s War on Drugs.
“It’s easy to conceptually be for something. But concept and implementation are very different. Residents are the ones who need to be heard,” she said, “and we need to restore confidence by restoring quality of life.”