More than 1,200 people died of an overdose in Philadelphia in 2020 — nearly matching the death toll of 2017, the highest on record. When this board recently asked all 17 members of City Council for their legislative priorities for the fall, not a single one mentioned overdose death or addiction.
At best, City Council is ignoring the issue of overdose death. At worst, some members are actively trying to block lifesaving solutions.
The overdose crisis in Philadelphia is persistent, but its dynamics are not stagnant. There have been two major changes over the past few years.
The first is who is dying and where.
While overdose death continued to decrease among white people, there has been a large increase in the number of Black victims. In a segregated city, that also means that overdose death increased in certain areas — particularly West and North Philadelphia. Hispanic people now have the highest overdose death rate in the city.
The second change in the dynamics of the crisis is in the substances found in the blood of overdose victims. The number of overdose victims who had both an opioid and a stimulant in their blood has been increasing. The type of stimulant has been changing as well, with cocaine becoming a bit less common and methamphetamine and PCP more common in 2020 compared with 2019.
There are many reasons how and why these changes might have occurred, and many unanswered questions. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been just two sparsely attended hearings, in December and April, on the overall city response to overdose, and specifically on Kensington — none exploring these new challenges.
More importantly, the last bill pertaining to the crisis that received serious consideration in Council was introduced by Councilmember David Oh right before COVID-19 hit Philadelphia. That was an ordinance attempting to block a supervised injection site from opening — a lifesaving harm reduction measure that Philadelphia was on the path toward pioneering in the U.S.
Meanwhile, last week Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution asking the state of California to authorize a supervised injection site.
This is not to say that some councilmembers are not active in efforts on the ground. Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents Kensington, has been working along with Councilmember Mark Squilla and the administration on new plans for the area. But the overdose crisis is a citywide issue, and the strength of Council is in the ability to pass legislation and hold hearings — and drive public conversation.
Of course, COVID-19 required much attention, but Council’s response to the crisis has been sluggish for years. Plus, we’ve seen them flex their power recently on gun violence, taking the Office of Violence Prevention and the Police Department to task over increasing homicides.
With more than two overdose deaths for every homicide in Philadelphia, the overdose crisis response deserves the same scrutiny.
Losing more than three people a day to a drug overdose is not normal, but that has been the reality of Philadelphia for more than three years. It’s past time for Philadelphia City Council to make overdose prevention a priority — in Kensington and every other neighborhood.