By Dwayne D. Royster
Across Philadelphia, the overdose epidemic is ripping apart families and shattering lives. Marginalized communities suffer the most, perpetuating a cycle of suffering borne of generations of disinvestment and exacerbated by COVID-19. We must take a thoughtful and compassionate approach to addressing this crisis.
First, we must confront a sobering reality: the Black community now bears the brunt of the overdose epidemic. In 2021, more Black Philadelphians died of overdoses than did members of any other group, and fatal overdoses are increasing faster for Black Philadelphians than they are for any other group. In 2022, the City’s number of unintentional overdose deaths was nearly triple the number of homicides.
As a faith leader, I have mourned with the families of overdose victims, and I dream of a day when no more families will have to shoulder that kind of grief. Our faith calls us to respond to the needs of all people, casting aside our fears and prejudices.
To truly address this problem, we cannot take tools off of the table. Cities worldwide have used overdose prevention centers for decades. Centers have been shown to save lives, while opening the door to treatment, mitigating the impact of drug use on the surrounding community, and saving millions in health care costs by preventing diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C. One study found a 26% net reduction in overdose deaths surrounding a safe consumption site in Vancouver. Another site in Barcelona was associated with a 50% drop in mortality from 1991 to 2008.
City Council recently banned life-saving overdose prevention centers in most of Philadelphia. This ban appears preemptive and mostly symbolic. The federal courts have already banned such centers in the city.
It’s true that people have real concerns about the ongoing impacts of this crisis, including a historically-informed fear that Black and brown communities will disproportionately carry the burdens of addressing it.
Yet my concern with a ban like this is that it reinforces, even unintentionally, the idea that criminalization, rather than science, is the proper response to the drug crisis because it restricts evidence-based treatment.
For more than half a century, the War on Drugs has furthered racism without keeping narcotics out of our communities. Black Philadelphians are arrested for possessing marijuana three times as often as their white neighbors are. The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, yet we have 25% of the world’s incarcerated people, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and brown. If criminalization successfully combated the drug crisis, we would expect Black and brown communities to have the lowest overdose rate – instead, in Philadelphia, we have the highest.
It’s time to consider tools that other nations have successfully employed. This means reducing barriers to treatment for people with addiction, legalizing marijuana, expunging the records of our neighbors convicted of nonviolent offenses, and, yes, even considering overdose prevention centers.
Before any safe consumption sites open, we need to have open conversations about concerns that they could increase crime and worsen quality of life issues.
Yet a blanket ban isn’t the best way to address these concerns — cooperation between elected leaders, community members, and treatment providers is the best way forward.
I want to highlight Councilmember Gauthier’s measured stance on this issue. While not opposing her Council colleagues’ decisions for their districts, she chose to carve her district out of this new ordinance. She acted out of the belief that any safe injection site would require intense public engagement through the existing zoning process.
Proverbs 31:8-9 tells us, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Councilmember Gauthier spoke up for some of our most vulnerable friends, family members, and neighbors by refusing to preemptively ban something that could help save their lives. Her choice can ignite a broader conversation among policymakers–one rooted in prioritizing the needs of impacted families above all else.
In this pivotal moment, let us reaffirm our commitment to our community, our faith, and the values that bind us. Together, we can confront the opioid crisis with compassion, data-driven solutions, and a steadfast belief in the power of hope. The lives of our loved ones are at stake.
Bishop Dwayne D. Royster is the Executive Director of POWER Interfaith and the POWER Action Fund.
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