Philadelphia is on its way to having the deadliest year on record in terms of overdose, according to new figures from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. More than 580 people died in the city of an overdose in the first six months of 2020. Health officials warn that preliminary numbers from the summer and fall are likely to be even worse.
The increase in overdose death is not unique to Philadelphia but the city was going in the wrong direction on overdose death even before the pandemic. In 2019, overdose deaths increased slightly from the year before, reaching 1150. In 2017, more than 1,200 died.
Between April and June the number of Black overdose victims surpassed the number of white victims. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health says an immediate goal is strengthening relationships with the Black and Hispanic community.
The other main department that handles the crisis, Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities, has been without a permanent commissioner since September.
The acknowledgment of the failure to reach certain communities, the change in leadership in DBHIDS, and the changing dynamic of the crisis are all reasons to re-convene a task force (akin to the 2017 Mayor’s Opioid Task Force) to audit the city’s approach to overdose and addiction — and look beyond opioids to account for rising overdose deaths related to stimulants.
The incoming Biden administration can also help save lives on day one. The 2017 task force recommended a supervised injection site, but due in part to a lawsuit brought by Trump- appointed U.S. Attorney William McSwain against Safehouse, the nonprofit working to open a site, progress has stalled. McSwain argues that a supervised injection site would violate the crack house statute — a law championed by Senator Joe Biden that penalizes owners of properties on which drug activity occurred with up to 20 years in federal prison. A federal judge ruled in favor of Safehouse and the case is pending decision in an appeals court.
Throughout the campaign, Biden expressed regret for his past positions prompting the War on Drugs. In Philadelphia, he has a way to put these words into action.
On January 20th, Biden can order his Department of Justice to drop the suit and to not take enforcement action against a supervised injection site — just like DOJ does with recreational marijuana. Biden’s picks to lead the Center for Disease Control, Rochelle Walensky, and Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, are both on the record supporting supervised injection sites. In fact, as the attorney general of California, Becerra joined a brief to the court in support of Safehouse. Whoever Biden pick for Attorney General needs to also be on board.
Philadelphia needs help. There is much more that a Biden administration and Congress could do to help — including removing the regulatory barriers to prescribing medications that treat opioid use disorder and allowing federal dollars to fund syringe services — but the bare minimum is to avoid impeding progress.
When so many people are dying, there there is no excuse to leave any evidence- supported tool that could save lives on the table.