Americans shunning supervised drug injection sites

Plans for the first supervised injection site in the United States to open next week at Constitution Health Plaza on Broad Street, South Philadelphia have been canceled after backlash from the community.

Concerned citizens had been bracing for the opening after a federal judge ruled Tuesday that such sites do not violate federal law, clearing the way for its opening after a two-year battle. In a statement Thursday night, Mayor Jim Kenney confirmed the building owner had pulled out of the lease.

The project had been spearheaded by the nonprofit group Safehouse, which had received the backing of several city officials, including Kenney. Safehouse Vice President Ronda Goldfein said the organization would need to regroup and figure out next steps over the weekend.

They are still planning to open locations elsewhere so people can inject drugs under the supervision of a doctor or nurse who can administer an overdose antidote if necessary. 

United States Attorney for eastern Pennsylvania William McSwain contends that it is against federal law to allow people to legally ingest illegal drugs. He said Tuesday that he will appeal the decision by Judge Gerald McHugh and vowed that drug laws would be enforced while he proceeds with his appeal.

 He said his office would use “all enforcement tools” against the site, including arrests and drug seizures, if Safehouse opens it before he exhausts his appeals.

McSwain said Thursday, “The sad fact is that Safehouse’s secretive, haphazard `plan’ has not been vetted with any of the affected neighborhood residents, community groups, City Council members, State Representatives or State Senators. It is being unfairly foisted on them on the assumption that they don’t matter.  It is treating them like fools.”

Opponents say Safehouse is seeking to break the law by normalizing and perpetuating the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl.  They view the proposition as a radical experiment that would invite thousands of people onto its property for the purpose of injecting illegal drugs. The nonprofit is using the Court’s ruling, which affirms an earlier ruling, to argue that it will not be violating the federal statute.

Over 900 people died in 2016 in Philadelphia from opioid overdoses, a 30 percent increase from 2015. More than 3,500 residents of the city have died from drug overdoses over the last three years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that close to 30,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose in 2014. Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014, and heroin overdose fatalities quadrupled from 2002 to 2013.

 The numbers are staggering, but they could have completely spiraled out of control without tough law enforcement action acting as a deterrent to potential drug users while forcing addicts into recovery.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) describes the widespread use of heroin, which has doubled across the country since 2010, as an epidemic, but drug use is not contagious. It is being fueled by drug dealers and transnational drug cartels.

Addiction should be properly characterized as the most severe form of a substance use disorder (SUD). SUDs are characterized by compulsive drug seeking and drug use that can be difficult to control. Addicts experience mild to severe health problems which are disruptive to their lives at work, school and home.

People addicted to fentanyl who stop using it can have severe withdrawal symptoms that begin as early as a few hours after the drug was last taken. These symptoms include:

  • muscle and bone pain
  • sleep problems
  • diarrhea and vomiting
  • cold flashes with goose bumps
  • uncontrollable leg movements
  • severe cravings

 Heroin and fentanyl are opioid drugs that bind to opioid receptors in the brain, reducing pain sensations and elevating pleasure and relaxation. Both are extremely potent, fast-acting, and can be lethal in as little as one dose. Unlike fentanyl, heroin has no accepted medical uses.

Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths in the United States. People may not even realize that the drug they are taking contains fentanyl, as it is often passed off as pure heroin.

Traces of fentanyl have been found in many other illegal drugs, including heroin. The strength of fentanyl makes overdosing more likely. Many drug dealers mix the cheaper fentanyl with other drugs like heroin, cocaine, MDMA and methamphetamine to increase their profits, making it often difficult to know which drug is causing the overdose.

Repeated use of these drugs cause negative health effects. When people overdose on fentanyl, their breathing can slow or stop. This can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can lead to a coma and permanent brain damage, even death.

Philadelphia’s Local ABC affiliate WPVI visited a supervised drug injection site in the heart of Toronto, Canada’s tourism district last year. Site administrator Shaun Hopkins told reporters, “We offer all the supplies that they’d need: tourniquet, sterile water, cookers, and then they can select the needle that most meets their needs. We intervened, so far, from August 2017, in about 170 overdoses either with Naloxone or oxygen. So you could say we’ve saved those lives,” she said. Hopkins admitted that “public support for this facility is difficult.”

Many residents of South Philadelphia say they worry the site will attract drug dealers and people in addiction to their neighborhood. The area is home to a population that is 62.03% White, 8.03% Black or African American. and 23.25% Asian. 

Others worry about the site’s proximity to day-care centers and South Philadelphia High School, which is about a block away. Proponents insist that the sites are a form of “harm reduction.” They cite international studies showing that sites in Canada and Europe have not become a magnet for addicts and drug pushers.

“The bottom line is that overdose prevention sites — which exist in more than 100 cities around the world — offer compassion for fellow human beings,” Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement Tuesday. “Our job as a city is to support efforts to alleviate suffering and to save lives.”

“People are going to try to guilt-trip you, say that you don’t have any compassion, that you don’t have any empathy,” said Councilmember Cherelle Parker, whose district includes many neighborhoods in Northeast and Northwest Philadelphia.  “But when you are a homeowner, what is going there will have an impact not just on your quality of life but on the value of what could be your only asset. You have a right to speak.”