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Philly needs comprehensive plan to right the wrongs of the crack era | Solomon Jones

Blacks were criminalized for the same thing that our city now proposes supporting for mostly white heroin addicts.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass at a forum on safe injection sites on Friday, February 9, 2017.
Councilwoman Cindy Bass at a forum on safe injection sites on Friday, February 9, 2017.Read moreSolomon Jones

"White lives matter, too."

Those four words, uttered by the city's deputy behavioral health commissioner, Roland Lamb, who is black, rang in my ears for days after I hosted a community forum on the city's proposal to fight opioid overdoses by supporting safe injection sites — places where addicts can shoot drugs under medical supervision.

It was as if Lamb was chiding the black community for asking why mostly white heroin users should be provided with safe injection sites, while addicts of color were ushered into jail cells during the crack era. Lamb's point was more complicated than that, of course. He believes caring for white addicts will lead to better care for addicts of color.

Perhaps, one day, that will be true. But for now, my response is simple.

People of color must not support safe injection sites, especially if those sites are not accompanied by a comprehensive plan to right the wrongs of the crack era. Blacks were criminalized for the same thing that our city now proposes supporting for mostly white heroin addicts. And if others are to be treated with compassion, we want our prisoners released, we want our records expunged, we want our property returned, and we want our communities made whole.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass, one of eight panelists I assembled to talk through the issue, listened as advocates and opponents spoke passionately around the issue of safe injection sites — facilities the City is calling Comprehensive User Engagement Sites, or CUES. Bass came away convinced that opioid overdoses can be addressed without such sites. On Tuesday, she announced a five-point plan to do so.

“One of the things that really struck me after we left [the forum] was that we had a number of people there who supported safe injection sites who were former users,” Bass told me in a radio interview. “But my question is we don’t have safe injection sites, so we know there are things out there that work that address all of those folks who were there who were former users or currently battling addiction. And so we say as point number one, invest significantly into [recovery] programs that we know end addiction.”
Bass’s plan also includes keeping better track of data on overdoses through the Medical Examiner’s Office. Currently, toxicology tests are not always reported. Bass wants every city facility, including recreation centers, to be repositories of information for Philadelphians seeking addiction help. She wants the city to steer the private funding that would go to safe injection sites to pay former addicts to provide peer counseling to active addicts. Finally, Bass wants the city to expunge drug-related misdemeanor convictions for those who’ve stayed out of trouble for a period of time. 

A version of that is happening in San Francisco, where California's legalization of marijuana prompted the city to begin the process of expunging more than 3,000 misdemeanor marijuana convictions, and reviewing over 5,000 felony convictions.

I asked Deputy Health Commissioner Lamb during the forum whether we could do something like that in Philadelphia.

"San Francisco did that in that moment," said Lamb, who served on the task force that recommended safe injection sites. "The reality is the people who have been arrested, who have served time in jail, who have those convictions on their records, have already been hurt.

"The best thing that we can do is not to continue the stigmatization of people because they use drugs. And the reality also is this: Once we discount white faces because they're dying from drug use, what do we think is going to happen to those faces of color who are using? The reality for us is that we have to begin to have a message that begins at the source. We don't arrest, period, because somebody is using. We find treatment for them. We make accommodations to get them into care. The idea is that we look to save lives. I'm in the recovery business. I'm not in the locking up business. The reality is we have to begin to guarantee the option of treatment for everyone."

And that's when he said it: White lives matter, too.

Except no one ever said they didn't. But many at the forum asked why black and brown lives don't seem to matter as much.

Quetcy Lozada, who attended the forum in place of 7th District Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, represents Kensington, which lies at the epicenter of Philadelphia's opioid crisis. Lozada asked when the children of the community, rather than the addicts who endanger them, will become the focus of the conversation.

It's a question that weighed on Gilberto Gonzales, a Kensington community advocate who served on the panel and told stories about his son's trek to school through dirty needles, lurking addicts and chaos created by open-air drug dealing.

Safe injection sites won't solve that, he said. I agree. And while I don't pretend to have all the answers, I know we must keep talking to find a viable solution.

Part of that solution must be righting the wrongs of the crack era, and restoring all that was lost in black and brown communities during the drug war. If city leaders are unwilling to engage that issue, it's time to take to the streets in protest.