What’s in a name? When it comes overdose prevention sites? Everything

March 8, 2020 8:08 am

Constitution Health Plaza (Image via The Philadelphia Tribune/Google Maps)

Last week, not long after news broke that a planned safe injection site for South Philadelphia had hit a brick wall, a friend and colleague texted me with a simple question:

What if Safehouse’s project had been called an overdose prevention site or an overdose prevention clinic, instead of a safe injection site?

Would that have made a difference in the dialogue? The purpose of such a site, after all, is to save lives, and the former description is surely more accurate than the latter, which conjures up all sorts of unsavory, ‘Sid and Nancy,’ kinds of images.

I mulled it over — and concluded my colleague had a point. And after a few days, I decided to test my theory. So I turned it over to Twitter to see what the social media hive mind had to say on the matter.

Not surprisingly, you had all the thoughts.

Here’s how it started:

As it turned out, the discussion was not a new one, as Adrienne Standley, of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, quickly pointed out to me:

She added:

And boy were there ever acronyms, some decidedly less helpful than others:

And in a rare instance of government coming to its senses, my colleague Christina Kristofic, who’s the city editor at our publishing partner, the Philadelphia Tribune, had this to add to the discussion:

As is so often the case in our public discussion, the emerging dialogue on Twitter this week was a vivid reminder that the way we frame issues and how we describe things and people has an immediate impact on the tenor and the outcome of that discussion.

And those discussions can happen in good faith, even if we don’t always agree.

And this honest disagreement as well:

And there was this reaction from someone directly positioned to help change the dialogue, state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, a Republican from western Pennsylvania:

Some of you will recall that I spent six years as PennLive’s opinion editor before the Capital-Star launched last year. We did a lot during that time that I’m proud of, but none more so than the year-long collaboration between the news and opinion desks, where we looked for solutions to Pennsylvania’s opioid abuse epidemic.

More than once during our time working on the project, I’d get stopped in the newsroom, or in the Capitol, or even in the grocery store by someone who wanted to thank us for shining a light on the issue. Just as often, they’d tell me that a family member, or a friend, or a colleague had succumbed to addiction.

Those conversations, coupled with the day I spent in Cumberland County’s courthouse watching prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and social workers try to contend with a public health crisis that cuts across every segment of our society, taught me that no one is immune to the lure of abuse. We’re all one bad day or turn of fate away from a similar problem.

I’ll concede that overdose prevention sites are an imperfect solution. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t even need to have this discussion. But that’s not where we are right now. Yes, overdose deaths are down. But not by enough.

And while the research is mixed, it’s reasonable to conclude that these sites, which offer a safer and more humane alternative to the streets, and access to addiction counseling, generally work.

For me, the chance that even one life will be saved is sufficient argument to justify their existence. With thousands dead, and thousands more in the throes of addiction, we’re long past the “not in my backyard” debate. The math of addiction already proves that it’s in our backyards, our church pews, our classrooms, our workspaces and in our dining rooms.

What we say matters. What we call things matters, as more than one Twitter pundit reminded me this week.

So I’ll take that first step: From here on out, you won’t see the phrase “safe injection site” in the pages of the Capital-Star. We’re going to call them “overdose prevention sites.” The dialogue changes with one step.

So we’re going to take it.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.