Philadelphia politicians furious with how plans for a supervised injection site were rolled out last week say the fiasco has breathed new life into a state bill that would make opening one without support of the local government a felony punishable by 20 years in prison.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), flanked by a dozen local officials including City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, said during a news conference at City Hall Monday that backers of what would have been the nation’s first supervised injection site botched the rollout and failed to involve citizens and local government.
“A day-care requires more scrutiny than this place, which is an experiment,” Williams said.
Last week, Safehouse, a nonprofit that planned to open a supervised injection site in South Philadelphia and was in conversations to open another in Kensington, paused its plans after intense opposition from some community members and politicians. The organization had initially said Wednesday that it would open a supervised injection site inside Constitution Health Plaza at 1930 S. Broad St. after they said a federal judge’s ruling granted them the legal authority to do so.
But by Thursday, those plans crumbled, and the medical center said it would no longer offer Safehouse space on its site.
The group is still moving forward. Former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Safehouse board member, said they will plan community meetings while considering alternative locations or mobile units.
Mayor Jim Kenney, a steadfast Safehouse supporter, said in a statement he’s still committed to finding a way for supervised injection sites to open.
Backers of the sites, which allow for people with substance use disorder to use drugs under medical supervision and be revived if they overdose, say the organization moved quickly to open because it has a responsibility to save lives amid an overdose crisis that has claimed nearly 3,500 Philadelphians in three years.
Williams’ bill, which was first introduced in October and is sitting in the state Senate Judiciary Committee, would amend the state’s Controlled Substances Act to effectively criminalize opening an establishment that provides space or paraphernalia for any person to use drugs. The penalties could include a 20-year prison sentence for an individual or a $2 million fine levied against an organization. Williams acknowledged the penalties are “extreme" and said “it will probably be negotiated.”
The bill does allow for one exception: if a local government passes an ordinance authorizing an organization to open a supervised injection site to reduce overdose-related deaths. The bill says the municipality must require the organization to employ trained medical professionals, conduct three public hearings, and develop a community safety plan with police.
While Williams vowed that his bill will move forward, the Judiciary Committee hasn’t yet scheduled a hearing or vote on the legislation. Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne), who chairs the committee, is a cosponsor of the bill. The Senate is in recess through mid-March.
In addition, State Rep. Maria Donatucci (D., Phila.) said she has a companion bill in the House. And State Sen. Tina Tartaglione (D., Phila.) said her office is drafting legislation that would ban supervised injection sites statewide. She didn’t offer a timetable for when that bill would be introduced.
Tartaglione called out Kenney and Rendell by name, saying if they “feel so strongly... put it next to their home.”
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has expressed opposition to supervised injection sites. A spokesperson reiterated the governor “has concerns about safe injection sites” and said the administration is reviewing Williams’ bill.
When Williams introduced his legislation last fall, Kenney’s spokesperson, Mike Dunn, called it “political grandstanding” and said Williams seemed “mired in the old thinking that has perpetuated this crisis.”
In a statement Monday, Kenney said the legislation criminalizes efforts to save lives, and added that he would implore elected officials to "be willing to look parents in the face and say they opposed this when it could have possibly saved their child’s life.”
Some supporters of supervised injection sites said they’re concerned the language in Williams’ bill is too broad. Devin Reaves, executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition, said he fears it could be used as “a new tool of the War on Drugs 2.0 in Pennsylvania."
Reaves cited how laws initially meant to target drug dealers whose product resulted in death have been used by some prosecutors to lock up the family or friends of people who have died of overdose.
“People are offering supervised consumption services in their cars, in their homes, to people they care about, and that seems like a good idea to me, and I don’t want communities to be less safe,” he said. “The War on Drugs has not worked. It’s been exceptionally bad for poor people and people of color. These new [bills] feel like a step in the wrong direction to me.”
On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered on Broad Street to celebrate the halting of plans to open a supervised injection site in the Constitution Health Plaza and to express to city officials they don’t want a site in South Philadelphia or anywhere else. Johnson spoke at the protest, as did at-large City Councilman David Oh, who last week introduced legislation in Council that would make it nearly impossible to open a supervised injection site in the city.
Clarke said last week that there’s “likely a majority of Council members who either are not happy with the process or don’t necessarily support the whole premise of safe injection sites.” No Council members last week defended the way Safehouse rolled out its plans.
Some community members have also taken their opposition to the judiciary. On Friday, more than a dozen neighborhood-based civic organizations — plus the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge — filed a brief in federal court in support of a move by the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, who last week asked the U.S. District Court to stay its final order pending appeal. The motion was filed hours before Safehouse placed their plans on hold and Constitution Health Plaza announced it had canceled the group’s tenancy.