The Lead

Philly state lawmaker says supervised injection sites aren’t the answer to fighting drug use. So he wants to ban them

By: - October 3, 2019 1:21 pm

State Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, discusses a safe-injection site proposed for the city’s Kensington neighborhood (Philadelphia Tribune photo, reproduced by permission)

Update, Monday 11 a.m.: Another Democratic state senator from Philadelphia, Christine Tartaglione, is co-sponsoring the measure.

Original post

A Democratic state senator from Philadelphia plans to introduce a bill that would prevent a supervised injection site from operating in his home city, delivering a potential setback to a project that has the support of Mayor Jim Kenney and the backing of a federal judge.

Sen. Anthony Williams circulated a memo to his colleagues Thursday seeking support for a statewide ban on “supervised injection sites,” where people can use illicit drugs under medical supervision, obtain clean needles, and receive information about treatment options.

The bill would prevent the Philadelphia nonprofit Safehouse from opening the nation’s first supervised injection site. Already, there has been strong opposition to a proposal to locate the site in Kensington — a neighborhood considered ground zero in the opioid crisis —WHYY-FM reports. 

Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney William McSwain sought to prevent the site from opening, calling it “in-your-face illegal activity,” the station reported.

In response, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that the project does not violate federal drug laws.

McSwain said in a statement that the “case is obviously far from over.” But the judge’s ruling apparently galvanized Williams.

“Given [Wednesday’s] federal court ruling upholding nonprofit organization Safehouse’s plan to open a supervised injection site in the city of Philadelphia, it is paramount that this legislation moves quickly,” Williams wrote in the memo. 

“Let us not forget that heroin remains an illegal drug and a deadly killer of Pennsylvanians across the commonwealth,” Williams continued. “In the midst of an epidemic, we should not be providing spaces for users to continue to use without requiring treatment.”

The goals of supervised injection sites are to reduce the spread of needle-borne diseases and viruses and to help people reduce drug use. Williams has expressed skepticism over those claims and was a vocal critic of the proposed injection site when he unsuccessfully challenged Kenney in the city’s mayoral primary race this year. 

It’s not uncommon for Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly to pass legislation preempting the will of locally elected officials in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the state’s largest — and most heavily Democratic — cities. 

When the Legislature considered killing Philadelphia’s soda tax last year, Williams told the online outlet Billy Penn that he’s “not a fan of preemption.”

But that’s exactly what his bill would do if it becomes law.

“Clearly, we must continue our efforts to rid Pennsylvania of the scourge of heroin, fentanyl, and other deadly drugs, but state-sanctioned drug use is not the way,” Williams said in the memo released Thursday. “Instead of dedicating resources to aid in the continued use of drugs, the General Assembly should seek to provide additional funding to treatment and use-prevention, to mental health and trauma-informed education, and to reducing the amount of opioids on our streets.”

Kenney’s spokesman pushed back against that argument Thursday, saying “data and evidence” show that overdose prevention sites can save lives.

“Instead of political grandstanding, we’d ask Sen. Williams to sit with the thousands of families who have lost loved ones to the opioid crisis and tell them directly that he would remove an avenue that could lead to someone’s life being spared in the future,” Kenney spokesman Mike Dunn said in an emailed statement. “When we desperately need innovative solutions, Senator Williams seems mired in the old thinking that has perpetuated this crisis.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.