Last January, when city officials gave the green light to a private entity to open a supervised injection site, Philadelphia was way ahead of the curve. But 18 months later, and after another year in which more than 1,100 people died of an overdose, people in addiction in Philadelphia still inject in abandoned houses, alleyways, and parks. At the same time, thousands of treatment slots in Philadelphia are empty.
What started as a bold move to address overdose deaths by a city now seems stuck.
That is not to say that there was no progress. A nonprofit, Safehouse, was incorporated to open the site, though was sued immediately by the feds. And while the legal battle in Philadelphia unfolds, others outside of Philadelphia are moving ahead, laying a foundation for such sites elsewhere.
Last year, California’s legislature passed a bill to allow San Francisco to open a supervised injection site. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill. Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, indicated that he is open to the idea. The bill was reintroduced in February and passed the Assembly in the end of May; it is now in the Senate. If Newsome signs the bill, California will be the first state in the nation to legalize supervised injection sites.
Last month, Rhode Island’s Senate passed a bill to allow for a pilot supervised injection site. The bill now heads to the House.
As cities and states attempt to navigate their way toward supervised-injection sites, the interpretation of federal law by the Department of Justice is still a major barrier.
That might change thanks to Rep. Pramila Jayapal from Washington state. Last week, ahead of DOJ’s budget hearing, Jayapal introduced an amendment that would prevent the DOJ from using federal funds to prohibit the “localities or states from the implementation or maintenance” of supervised injection sites. Jayapal represents Seattle, where public-health advocates have been pushing for a supervised injection site but where the U.S. attorney threatened legal action.
That could provide Safehouse the legal protection it needs to save lives.
The Jayapal amendment is unlikely to pass on first attempt. It took 13 years to include in DOJ’s budget similar language about medical marijuana. Michael Collins, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, hopes that because of the urgent need to save lives and the evidence to support supervised injection sites, the amendment will pass faster than that.
Those who support supervised injection sites in Philadelphia have been putting the pressure on City Council and the Kenney administration. But our representatives in Harrisburg and Washington should not get off the hook.
The opposition for supervised-injection sites is loud, but might not be representative. A recent public opinion poll by Pew Charitable Trusts shows that 1-in-2 Philadelphians supports a supervised injection site.
A recent Drexel study found that support in Kensington is even higher — 90 percent of 360 surveyed residents.
Members of Congress representing Philadelphia could show their constituents that they are paying attention by supporting the Jayapal amendment to give legal protection to supervised injection sites — and pave the way to save lives.