Philly Councilman’s Dismissive Attitude toward Safe Injection Is Part of a Larger Problem
A few weeks ago, Philadelphia Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a seemingly minor zoning bill which targeted a building in the North Philadelphia Kensington neighborhood. It just so happens that this building is the exact location which has been selected as Philadelphia’s first safe injection site by the nonprofit Safehouse which has been pursuing the project for some time. Make no mistake, the bill is designed specifically to torpedo the project, and when asked about the implications, Squilla first dodged the question, “All we are doing is trying to be fair to the surrounding community…”, before later addressing the project more directly by saying, “I don’t see how you get a use permit for something that is illegal no matter where it's zoned.”
I think it’s important that we stop kidding ourselves when it comes to the crisis of overdoses. Politicians are relentlessly slippery people, so it behooves us to keep their actions primary when discussing their merits and the underlying ideas which guide their decisions. Whatever statements he may make to the contrary, officials like Squilla, who are attempting to tank the safe injection site, are telling us through their actions that they believe that overdosing is somehow the fate that drug users deserve. They rather sadistically see a violent death as a form of retributive justice and they rather shortsightedly foresee a future when a problem like the opioid crisis has solved itself in the worst possible way — they’re simply planning to wait it out.
Those of us who support the safe injection site, on the other hand, recognize that addiction is an illness, and that the opioid crisis and the associated overdoses are a public health crisis which has been exacerbated by the exact same attitudes which lead people to disregard users and the safe injection program entirely. We must recognize that the criminalization of drug addiction is part of the larger historical process which brought about this current crisis in the first place.
People are dying. Thousands of them. If preventing these needless deaths isn’t the primary focus of any response to this crisis, whether they are in his ward/district or not, then politicians like Squilla are unfit for office (or at the very least, shouldn’t be intervening in the efforts to save lives by people who do care). Squilla’s concern trolling about the legality of the safe injection site shows not just a disregard for the lives being lost but a broader dearth of moral leadership at the center of his political philosophy.
I cannot believe this must be said, but simply because something is illegal doesn’t mean that it is wrong. And furthermore, the job of elected officials is supposed to be to change laws, not simply uphold them — Squilla is a city council member, not a police officer.
Not all of Philadelphia’s elected officials oppose the project, however. Most prominently, Mayor Kenney has lent his public support to Safehouse, though he has stopped short of appropriating public funds for the project (which, though I wouldn’t have any issue with, might be the best option for right now politically).
Meanwhile, the federal government has stepped in, and is attempting to use the power of the courts to destroy the possibility of a safe injection site. Federal officials (like U.S. Attorney for the Philadelphia area, William McSwain, who’s leading the federal opposition) prattle on about how safe injection sites would encourage drug abuse while the same government that he represents has allowed pharmaceutical companies to do exactly the same thing for decades. He could spend his time and resources taking on the fraud and abuse at the highest echelons of corporate America, but instead chooses to target a small nonprofit trying to save a few lives in one part of Philadelphia, a city which has been utterly forgotten by the federal government, broadly speaking.
The same forces which were uninterested in properly regulating the industries which caused this crisis of overdoses are now stepping in, prepared to block those minimal interventions designed to stem the flow of deaths.
For the record, Safehouse isn’t encouraging drug abuse. Nor are they even implicitly lending their assent to the practice. They are using the meager tools available to them in an effort to save the lives of people who their own elected officials have callously ignored.
I am sure that there exist residents of the surrounding neighborhood who are raising good faith concerns (the linked NPR article gives voice to a few of them), but we must have the courage to explain to these people and the rest of the city that:
- If you live in Kensington, you’re already living within the area most affected by this crisis (in Philly), so it’s not as though the existence of this facility will drive the crisis where it isn’t already.
- For the program to be effective, the site has to be where the highest concentration of active users already are, hence the location in Kensington, near the el station.
- The location was specifically chosen because the surrounding properties are not residential.
- If it becomes necessary to subordinate property rights (e.g. ignore property values/ violate zoning laws) to prevent more needless deaths, then the government should be prepared to do that.
We have to insist that the rights of the victims of this crisis come first because, simply put, property values are not worth the lives of others, even if they are people who have been written off by politicians like Squilla.
The impulse to view drug users as an unproductive mass dragging down our society is strong for many, especially when representatives of both major parties are willing to espouse this opinion, but we have to view our society holistically, and recognize that (even if you don’t work for a pharmaceutical company) the same structures which may have given you or I a chance to succeed dealt these people their lot in life as well. Addiction is a disease of despair, and that despair stems from the destructive and alienating environment so many people have been resigned to in America, and especially in Kensington, for decades.
Let me be clear: the safe injection site will not end the opioid crisis, I recognize that. Only a proper interrogation of the economic forces which created the preconditions for widespread abuse will solve this problem in the long term; but for right now, even if it might only prevent or delay a few deaths, it’s better than Mark Squilla’s plan, which is to do absolutely nothing at all.