The Kenney administration's forum on safe injection sites saw neighbors in the Fox Chase section of Northeast Philadelphia raise their voices in opposition to drug use in their neighborhood.
And make no mistake. Safe injection sites are places where addicts use illegal drugs. The city says they differ from illicit drug houses because personnel are on hand to help addicts survive overdoses and seek treatment. But I have personally survived an addiction, and I can tell you in no uncertain terms that you cannot talk an addict into treatment. The addict has to want it.
I suspect the people of the largely white Fox Chase community are well aware of that truth, just as they understand that addiction brings drug dealers and gun violence, con men and prostitutes, death and destruction far beyond what comes at the end of the needle. That's why neighbors shouted down panelists such as Health Commissioner Thomas Farley and David Jones, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.
But there's more to this than a single neighborhood's refusal to consider safe injection sites. There is also the sordid racial reality attached to Philadelphia's response to addiction. The naked truth is that the city wants to view drug use as a health crisis now that overdose victims are mostly white. But when crack swept through black and brown communities, addicts were treated as criminals.
I told Mayor Kenney as much when I had the opportunity to question him at a meeting of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists last week.
To his credit, the mayor acknowledged that people of color were hurt because the government treated addiction like a crime, not a disease. He also acknowledged that the response to the crack crisis was wrong.
I thanked him for that acknowledgment, and told him it wasn't good enough. Then I asked him how he would restore communities of color torn apart by criminalization during the crack era.
The mayor said there was no way to go back and undo what was done. But he told me he'd take my suggestions for repairing the damage if I had any.
I'm glad Kenney said that, because I have numerous suggestions for repairing the damage done to black and brown communities during the war on drugs. I spoke with District Attorney Larry Krasner about two of them.
First, there must be economic restoration, so the city must put additional funding behind the district attorney's effort to give back some of the houses taken from those accused, but not convicted, of dealing drugs from their properties during the crack era.
Krasner told me in an interview on my radio show on Praise 107.9 FM that the DA's Office is "dealing with issues of giving some people money back where they have a legal entitlement, or the value of their house back, or things of that sort. It's a complicated process because obviously it involves a lot of people over a long period of time, but we are open to reviewing that with an eye towards justice."
But giving back property, while laudable, is only the beginning. We must also repair the wrongs committed from a criminal justice perspective. So my second suggestion, which I initially made at my February forum on safe injection sites, is to wipe away some past drug convictions so people who've changed their lives can move forward.
"If we look at the tremendous impact that convictions for possession of drugs have had over the last decades, certainly coming through the crack crisis and so on, it's time to talk about that," Krasner told me in our interview. "In San Francisco, they are going back in time and they are eliminating records of convictions for marijuana possession. … And one proposal that needs to be discussed is that we look at people who were users of crack, and we consider whether maybe enough time has passed and there's a vehicle to maybe go back and undo some of those convictions, which are still affecting some people's employability and capacity to do various things in life."
My third suggestion is to provide neighborhood volunteers as mentors for those returning from prison. The city, in partnership with an organization such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, could provide that assistance in conjunction with a six-month work-study program coupling job experience with education. Doing so would be cheaper than incarcerating those who'd return to prison without that kind of help.
My final suggestion is to partner seniors with young people. Put them in our most challenged schools, and let them work together to craft solutions, form relationships, and repair the family bonds destroyed during the crack era.
Such initiatives would not only restore communities destroyed in the past. It would spare the rest of us from a future in which addiction is enabled rather than treated.