State Sen. Anthony Williams doesn’t represent the part of South Philly where a supervised injection site was supposed to open or the Kensington-Harrowgate area where a site was previously rumored to be located. In over two decades as a state senator, he did not tackle drug policy and addiction through legislation. However, for the past year, Williams has made himself central in the city’s discussion over supervised injection sites — sometimes in confusing and contradictory ways.
Last October, the day after a federal judge ruled that a supervised injection site would not violate federal law, Williams’ office circulated a press release titled: “Senator Williams to Introduce Legislation Prohibiting Supervised Injection Sites.”
The announcement triggered criticism, including from The Inquirer Editorial Board, which called on Williams to focus on what the state legislature could do to mitigate the overdose crisis — like authorizing syringe exchanges — instead of banning local efforts.
By the end of October, Williams’ office circulated another press release, this time titled: “A. Williams Introduces Legislation to Allow Municipalities to Authorize Supervised Injection Sites.” The bill would have made it a felony, punishable by 20 years in prison, to operate a supervised injection site without at least three community meetings and a local ordinance to authorize it before it opened.
It was the same bill. All that changed was Williams’ framing of its intent.
The legislation got little traction. As did another press release, the week after, in which Williams announced that he would introduce legislation to make syringe exchanges legal statewide.
Last week, following the surprise announcement that the nonprofit Safehouse planned to open a site in South Philly and the reversal of that plan following community outrage, Williams’ bills to criminalize supervised injection sites and to authorize syringe exchanges both took steps forward. In a press conference in City Hall, Williams promised that the supervised injection site bill will move through the legislative process. The day after, Williams’ circulated a cosponsorship memorandum for his syringe exchange bill.
Williams doesn’t see a tension between the two bills. I do. Both supervised injection sites and syringe exchange programs are under the umbrella of harm reduction measures and are criticized in the same way: for supposedly condoning drug use and inviting crime.
Williams’ told me last week that his syringe exchange bill would allow nonprofits to hand out “safe and sterile needles” so that anyone who needs them could “use them in a safe and productive way.” A supervised injection site provides needles and a place where people can use drugs in a safe and productive way. What’s the difference?
“The focus [of syringe exchanges] is on and always has been on that dirty needle, and recognizing that you’re probably using the syringe for something illegal,” Williams told me last week. On the other hand, Williams says, “The injection site specifically says we acknowledge that you’re going to use an illegal drug.”
The key difference seems to be Williams’ level of comfort.
For Williams, the existence of syringe exchanges, which have operated in Philadelphia since then-Mayor Ed Rendell authorized them locally in conflict with state law in 1992, is so prevalent that until recently, he didn’t know they were still illegal under state law. “I think I was reading The Inquirer when I discovered that it wasn’t legal in Pennsylvania. I was stunned.”
(He’s not alone. During a meeting with the Editorial Board in 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf, a supporter of syringe exchange, was also unaware that they’re not legally on the books.)
But Williams is far less comfortable with supervised injection sites, which explains why his other proposed legislation would have harsh penalties — up to 20 years in prison, just like the notorious Crack House Statute, which the federal prosecutors used in its legal argument against Safehouse.
When I first asked Williams about the penalty in his City Hall press conference, he responded: “Was crack 20 years?” Even if Williams wants to further criminalize white drug users instead of promoting a public health response for black users, his bill was written in vague terms that won’t achieve that.
When I asked again a few days later, Williams’ answer changed. “I agree with those who are critical of that section of the bill, and we’re going to amend it and change it.” The punishment in the amended bill is going to be civil — a fine — and not criminal. “[The goal is to foster] public discourse, allow for public input, and force more transparency — but not drive people into dark places because they will be fearful of criminalizing their activity.”
It’s difficult to reconcile Williams as a champion of syringe exchange with Williams the NIMBY warrior against supervised injection sites.