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With Mayor Jim Kenney’s election excuse gone, Philly’s got nothing to lose on supervised injection sites — except more lives | Mike Newall

Now’s the time for Kenney to turn his famous ire into the cudgel it can be.

Mayor Jim Kenney celebrates at the podium with supporters after announcing victory in the primary election results, during a party at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Mayor Jim Kenney celebrates at the podium with supporters after announcing victory in the primary election results, during a party at the National Museum of American Jewish History.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Kudos to Mayor Jim Kenney, for beating two “annoying gnats” — his words, not mine — this week in the Democratic mayoral primary

Wantonly dismissing political foes is not out of character for His Grumpiness. But on the issue of supervised injection sites — places where people in addiction can inject drugs under medical supervision and be revived if they overdose — I’m inclined to respect the attitude. Challengers Anthony Hardy Williams and Alan Butkovitz spent a lot of time on the campaign trail confusing and scaring people about basic facts on supervised injection sites, saying there’s no safe way to inject illegal drugs despite the lives the sites have saved.

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt: Maybe they had no idea what they were talking about. But when you’re running for mayor in the middle of a public health catastrophe, even that’s unconscionable.

Well, goodbye to all that.

The attacks did seem to bruise Kenney. “In an election year, you get pilloried because you even think about saving people’s lives,” he said at a forum shortly before election day.

I applaud the mayor for thinking about it. Now it’s time to do it.

It’s true that we wouldn’t be this far along without Kenney. Certainly, he’s made Philadelphia ground zero for action on the urban opioid crisis, through responses like his declaration of a disaster in Kensington. The closing of major encampments with an eye to getting people inside, not just clearing the streets. Expanding effective treatment. And knocking down the death rate, even if only by 100 overdoses, by flooding city streets with Narcan.

And on supervised injection sites, he has positioned Philadelphia to be the first in the country to open one. But at times Kenney’s seemed unwilling to wholeheartedly champion the idea. Remember the time he skipped the news conference announcing the city’s support for supervised injection sites, and instead promoted the upcoming WWE Royal Rumble. (Truly, only in Philadelphia.) And too often his administration has punted reporters’ questions to advocates looking to open a site, rather than offer their full-throated support.

Thankfully, that’s changed. On stage last month at a symposium with Joe Biden and Jeb Bush, the mayor spent a lot of his allotted time trying to get someone, anyone, to acknowledge that Philadelphia is trying to open a supervised injection site. None of the political royalty onstage bit.

But despite the mayor’s progress — and with an issue this controversial, progress counts as touting a site more often — momentum has slowed. As advocates have searched for a location for a site, opponents have pushed back, and Kenney himself has said a site can’t open until his administration comes up with a public safety plan for it.

There’s enough work to be done addressing these kind of rightful, logistic concerns from neighbors in Kensington, who have borne the brunt of the city’s war on drugs for decades — and now the response to the opioid crisis. Instead, we’re still fact-checking public conversations about a lifesaving measure that we can’t afford to waste time on.

As my colleague Aubrey Whelan reported Friday, Safehouse, the nonprofit formed to open a site, has been granted tax-exempt status from the IRS. Now it can start raising real money. Already facing a federal lawsuit, Safehouse will have a bigger target on its back. Safehouse needs a pugnacious mayor in its corner. Luckily, we have one of those.

Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director, said that any delay is because the city wants to get it right. “We want this to be a model, not just for Philly, but for the country,” he said. He added that the mayor’s leadership on the issue is already there and already evident.

Now’s the time for Kenney to turn his famous ire into the cudgel it can be — as we saw with the soda tax and our sanctuary city status. Arguably, there’s no more effective Jim than an angry one.

The city should support Safehouse in every way it can in the nonprofit’s legal battle with the feds. The mayor should step up direct outreach in the neighborhoods. Personally, I’d like to see him knocking on doors around Hilton Street in Kensington, a proposed location for a site, and other neighborhoods that need a site. Center City, the Northeast, West, and South Philly, to start. Or, as my paper’s editorial board suggests, he could champion efforts to get a mobile site up and running.

There were never any valid excuses to wait to open a site. The city has lost 3,000 lives in three years — triple the city’s murder rate. But an election year can be a convenient time to hold back on reforms. After Tuesday’s primary, that excuse is gone. There’s nothing left to lose — except more lives.