by Jay A. McCalla
A month or so ago, City Managing Director Mike DeBerardinis presented the results of The Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic, which was empaneled to address our genuinely alarming opioid epidemic.
Complete statistics aren’t available for all off 2017, but we know almost 1,000 Philadelphians died from opioid overdoses in the first nine months. We seem to be on target for 1,200 deaths in 2018. Compare these numbers to our sky-high 2017 murder rate of 314 and you acquire a real sense of the problem’s depth.
To be clear, the deaths are due to the improper administration of their drug via syringe.
Diabetes patients are given careful instruction from medical professionals on how to self-administer their insulin. In the community of active addicts, the instruction will likely come from another homeless addict, and that can’t be good.
In response to the eye-popping death rate, the task force recommends, and the Kenney Administration supports, the creation of “safe injection” sites where addicts bring their drugs and are provided with clean syringes. If someone overdoses, trained staff would respond. Hence, lives would be saved.
These places would officially be known as Comprehensive User Engagement Sites and would try to connect drug users with recovery services and other resources that may improve their lives.
Safe injection sites may seem like an obvious answer to the crisis of people dying under bridges, but the idea is untested anywhere in America. And, it’s likely neighbors will oppose such a facility wherever it’s proposed.
A wake up call for the Kenney Administration is the view of State Attorney General Josh Shapiro that state and federal laws would have to change in order to permit such an operation. While it’s conceivable we might have cooperation from Harrisburg, it’s silly to believe a Republican Congress will help us create safe spaces for heroin use.
With a mountain of obstacles: community opposition, state and federal laws, insurance and location, to name just a few, why on earth did DiBerardinis rush this to the public? I’d describe it as half-baked, but it doesn’t rise to that level.
A sincere commitment would require converting underused recreation centers into bed space and counseling centers for homeless addicts. A team of social workers should be touring Kensington and Fairhill day and night, identifying addicts who may want treatment.
We need to bring all city departments to bear on these problems in the same way we call “all hands on deck” when we have a citywide celebration. But, such animation requires mayoral leadership and a credible plan. Sadly, we presently lack both.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.