City Council votes to prohibit overdose prevention sites in most of Philly

Philadelphia City Hall. (Photo by Jason Villemez)

Philadelphia City Council voted on Thursday to prohibit overdose prevention sites in nine of the city’s 10 districts, another setback in a long fight from harm reduction advocates to have such a site opened in Philadelphia. Councilmember Quetzy Lozada initially drafted the bill, which passed 13-1 at the first meeting of the fall session. 

Members of local activist groups ACT UP Philadelphia, Black and Latinx Community Control of Health (BLCC) and other community members who support safe injection sites, assembled outside City Hall on Thursday in opposition of the bill. 

“There has not been one single overdose death at an overdose prevention center,” Jazmyn Henderson, organizer with ACT UP and BLCC, told PGN. “Statistically, crime has gone down in that area; the amount of syringes on the streets has been reduced; more people are accessing services because they’re more likely to access services right after an overdose than at any other time.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, no one has died of a drug overdose while at an overdose prevention center from more than 20 years of operation in other countries. However, it is unclear whether they reduce overall death rates. Other research indicates that these centers reduce public drug use, decrease demands on local health care and emergency response services, and increase access to substance use disorder treatment.

A slew of community members, including health care workers, also made their voices known at the City Council meeting in support of an overdose prevention site in Philadelphia.

The bill, otherwise known as a zoning overlay, proposes a “Narcotics Injection Sites Overlay District,” which applies to “any lot” in all Philadelphia districts except for District 3. The bill states that “a Narcotic Injection Site is a prohibited use in these districts.” 

The bill now goes to Mayor Jim Kenney, though a spokesperson from his administration told the Inquirer that it’s unclear whether he plans to veto the bill.

“The legislation we passed yesterday was necessary because it puts the community voice first,” Lozada said in an email. “Policies from the past pertaining to this crisis have come from the top down and many of them have not worked. For example, the community never had a say in the decision to direct the drug crisis to Kensington and contain it here.”

Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, which is part of Lozada’s 7th district, has long been the epicenter of the opioid epidemic.

“They turned their back on this once thriving neighborhood that was already experiencing hardship and made it so much worse,” Lozada said. “Despite that, Kensington is still home to small businesses and families with young children growing up surrounded by this chaos. This bill, along with the Marshall Plan that my colleagues and I are putting together, prioritizes community input and will look to change the way our city works for people in crisis.”

Anne Kelly King, chief of staff for Councilmember Mark Squilla, explained that the legislation would give the community a say in a possible overdose prevention site in their neighborhood by making such a site a variance. In the event that a party wants to use land in a way that deviates from the law, a zoning variance is required.  

“Like other variance requests, it creates a process that the local Registered Community Organization would be required to meet with the operator to review the proposed plan,” Kelly King said in an email. “The operator would then go to the Zoning board for approval. CM Squilla believes that the community should have an opportunity to express an opinion and input and weigh in during this process. There are many prohibited uses in the zoning code, and each require a variance to be permitted to operate.”  

The Marshal Stabilization and Recovery Plan would call for city leaders to collaborate to ensure that “investments into the community go where they are most needed and most effective,” as stated in the City Council Weekly Report

“If [Lozada] was asking the community for input, she could have had a community town hall for that prior to voting to ban it,” said BLCC organizer and Kensington resident Valentina Rosario. “Why would you do a ban if you’re asking for community input?”

Moses Santana, who also lives in Kensington and is part of BLCC, said that drug use would drop with an open OPS.

“If they’re really thinking about the community, they’re going about it the wrong way,” Santana said. “The language about the community is there, but the actions in particular really hurt the community.”

José de Marco, co-founder of BLCC, said that “for decades, Kensington has been nationally known for illicit drugs.”

“This is nothing new to people that live [in Kensington],” de Marco said. “Everyone knew it and did next to nothing. Now that expensive unaffordable apartments and houses are being built for affluent people migrating to the new ‘hip’ Kensington, [they] may have to step over dead bodies or unsightly homeless people while going into Starbucks for their lattes.”

All but two City Council members voted in favor of the overdose prevention site bill, with the exception of District 3 representative Jamie Gauthier, who was absent from the meeting, and at-large Councilmember Kendra Brooks. 

“In the midst of an overdose crisis that is destroying families and communities, we should not be banning a tool that could save lives,” Brooks said in a press release. “We should make decisions based on evidence-based public health research, tools that have been proven to be effective, and lived experience. 

“My support for harm reduction and overdose prevention comes from my own life experiences. I have watched addiction take hold in people I love, and I have been through the trauma and devastation that comes with it.”

In 2021, 1,276 people died from overdoses in Philadelphia, and Black individuals bore the brunt of those deaths, according to a report by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health

Black and Brown communities, LGBTQ+ populations and intersections thereof are more likely to experience drug abuse. The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicates that 9% of sexual minority (LGBTQ) adults 18 and older reported using opioids, compared to 3.8% of their cis/het peers. According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, the rate of overdose deaths among the U.S. Black/African American population increased by 40% from 2015-2016, compared to a 21% increase in the general population.

Prohibition of overdose prevention sites “is not what the people want,” Rosario said. “What the people want is help for individuals with substance use disorder, to help get them off the streets. They want their children to be able to play in the streets; they want their children to live normal, everyday lives. That’s what they want. They want community and they want the city to take responsibility for this because this is their responsibility. They’re not dealing with the issue at hand; creating overdose prevention sites deals with the issue at hand.”

Elliot Goodenough, a primary care doctor, said they lost several patients and community members to overdoses.  

“We live in a city in a time where folks who are self-managing their opioid dependence are using drugs every day, from a drug supply that is potentially deadly because that’s all we have access to on these streets,” Goodenough told PGN. “A local infrastructure can use multiple tools to help reduce the risk of death for folks, so we can keep people alive including using a safe consumption site, sites where people can opt into being monitored while they’re using, and potentially interact with health workers like me and build trust that way.”

At the City Council meeting, District 3 City Council candidate Jabari Jones spoke in opposition to overdose prevention sites in Philadelphia, but also called for an amendment of the bill to prohibit an OPS in the 3rd District as well. 

“I am firmly in support of banning safe injection sites across the city, but I’m here today to raise an alarm that the 3rd District is the only district not included in the overlay area. That makes Southwest and West Philadelphia the only areas in the city that safe injection sites can be opened. I believe that this is another perfect example of repeating a policy decision that is already shown to have disastrous results.

“Today, I worry that this bill would prevent safe injection sites in every part of the city, except the neighborhoods in West and Southwest Philadelphia, will create the next beacon and will send the next message that West Philadelphia is the new Kensington. The residents of West and Southwest have been clear that they do not support safe injection sites. We should be exploring resources for prevention and treatment, not keeping the door open for sites that will enable harmful addictions instead of treating them.” 

Kelsey Leon has been doing first aid and wound care in Kensington with Community Action Relief Project, a Kensington mutual aid harm reduction organization.  

“We have a tangible, proven solution that will save lives,” they said before the City Council meeting began. “Councilmembers Lozada and those who stand with her are completely oblivious and willfully ignorant in that reality. They insist that they don’t want their children to see people shooting up on the street, and yet are opposing a safe injection site where people would come inside to use safely and prevent further deaths. Their position makes absolutely no sense, it is not backed by any science or research.”