Ten months ago, it probably seemed like a pipe dream when a petition was started online to open safe injection sites in Philly.
But with fatal overdoses rising during that time, on Tuesday, city leaders threw their support behind the idea of opening a safe or supervised site for heroin users to use their drugs under supervision by medical staff to prevent overdoses.
“We cannot just watch as our children, our parents, our brothers and our sisters die of drug overdoses,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said in a statement. “We have to use every proven tool we can to save their lives until they recover from the grip of addiction.”
Mayor Jim Kenney's task force on fighting opioid addiction announced in its new recommendations released Tuesday that the city will encourage private contractors to fund and open one or more such sites.
When exactly such a center will open remains clear. They are designed to prevent deaths from overdoses and offer drug users medical evaluations and addiction services.
Philly is the second city in the nation to throw support behind the idea, after Seattle, Washington, but no such site has yet been opened in the country. One was opened in Vancouver, Canada, in 2003 and the city has reported a drop in fatal overdoses with little-to-no increase in crime.
Meanwhile, a scientific review undertaken by Philly's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services (DBHIDS) found that such a center could bring down the number of overdoses, reduce the spread of diseases associated with intravenous drug use and lead more drug users into social programs to help fight their addiction.
Philly saw 900 overdose deaths in 2016 and 1,200 in 2017 (some 80 percent of which were from opioids).
In comparison, "In the worst year of the AIDS epidemic, 935 people died in Philadelphia," said city Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis.
"These drugs destroy lives of tens of thousands of families," he said."They drive much of the city’s violence and have stressed out our EMS system to the brink."
The safe injection site proposal, despite serious questions, has been winning over supporters.
"I started completely, totally, adamantly against this. Everything about me in law enforcement was against this," said Philly Police Commissioner Richard Ross at a news conference about the report, saying the positive outcomes reported out of Vancouver have swayed his opinion. "I went from being adamantly against it to having an open mind."
"I have a lot of questions, for example, 'What would our role be?' 'What does that look like?' 'What am I asking our police officers to do?'" Ross said. "But it's a lot of lives being lost. We certainly cannot just throw our hands up and say, 'Well, that's not my problem.'"
The task force also recommended:
-Responding faster to "outbreaks" of overdoses
-Connecting homeless drug users with placement
-Distributing more naloxone (aka Narcan) along with buprenorphine (used like Methadone for drug treatment)
-A public awareness campaign (www.donttaketherisk.org)
Learn more at phila.gov/opioids.