By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — City Council moved closer to seizing control over overdose sites in Philadelphia, rebuffing strong opposition from the Kenney administration.
On Monday, a council committee tweaked and advanced a bill with a favorable recommendation that would label an overdose prevention site a “nuisance health establishment” and mandate potential operators receive City Council approval, among other regulations.
During the hours-long and occasionally raucous committee hearing inside the council’s chambers at City Hall, committee members grilled Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.
Farley said the Kenney administration did not support the proposal, which would put in place an “insurmountable obstacle that effectively prohibits overdose prevention sites” at a time when the opioid crisis is growing.
Farley raised doubts about the practicability of the bill, including how community support or opposition for a site would be measured, but he did not provide an alternative proposal.
Representatives from Safehouse, an independent nonprofit not associated with the city, did not testify at the hearing, but Safehouse vice president Ronda Goldfein said in an email later Monday that Safehouse leaders oppose the legislation.
“We heard the strong voices at today’s hearing [in] support [of] overdose prevention services, and oppose a bill drafted to be an absolute veto and not a solicitation for public input,” Goldfein said.
“The reason why this bill came is because now there’s no trust between Council, the communities and the [Kenney] administration” said Councilman Mark Squilla, whose District 1 includes parts of the Kensington neighborhood, the epicenter of the opioid crisis.
The legislation is part of the ongoing fallout from Safehouse’s attempt to open an overdose prevention site in South Philadelphia without community input. That effort failed when the landlord terminated the nonprofit’s lease after significant public outcry.
Under the bill, anyone seeking to open a supervised injection site would need to garner the approval of 80% of the community (down from 90 percent) within a half-mile radius (down from one mile) of a proposed site, publicize plans to the community at least six months in advance of opening, and later present a “detailed plan,” among other things.
In a voice vote among the members of the Committee on Public Health and Human Services, council members Cindy Bass, Bobby Henon, David Oh and Isaiah Thomas voted to move the legislation forward with a favorable recommendation; councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks voted against the amendments to the legislation and to moving it forward. Councilmember Derek Green was absent.
Oh, the main sponsor of the legislation, called his amendments a “symbolic change” and invited the Kenney administration to offer a counterproposal.
Without naming Mayor Jim Kenney, Oh said, “Someone has to come forward and take responsibility of saying, ‘We don’t like that process, here’s a different process; we don’t like 90 percent, we prefer 51 percent.’ Whatever it is, we are open to receiving that from someone.”
Bass, chairwoman of the Committee on Public Health and Human Services, said the Kenney administration “really brought nothing to the table” in terms of crafting regulations around supervised injection sites.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re really trying to address the situation,” Bass said to Farley.
In a heated exchange during the hearing, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said Farley and the Kenney administration “disrespected everybody” when they attempted to ram through a overdose prevention site in South Philadelphia while keeping residents and council members in the dark.
“The leadership moment right now is for this administration to give us an alternative that we can trust, otherwise, this is what you get,” said Quiñones-Sánchez, whose District 7 includes the Kensington neighborhood and other hard-hit areas of the opioid epidemic.
Bass hoped the leadership of Safehouse would not attempt to open a supervised injection site before the regulations took effect.
“I certainly hope that they would not, that they would see the outreach and the concern that people have in the neighborhood and take it very seriously,” Bass said.
The legislation now heads to the full City Council, which could take up the proposal on a final vote as early as next week. Bass expected the proposal to pass.
Opponents and supporters of supervised injection sites filled the council’s chambers, many bearing signs.
Opponents expressed outrage that Safehouse bypassed community outreach and lacked transparency in its efforts to open its supervised injection site. Many criticized the lack of a “process” to open a supervised injection site; raised concerns over safety around and oversight of a potential site; and questioned how a site would affect quality of life.
Resident Maureen Fratanton, who was part of a contingent of South Philadelphians clad in red T-shirts who turned up to voice opposition to overdose prevention sites, called for more funding for existing rehabilitation services and programs.
“You’re enabling them to die,” Fratanton said of overdose prevention sites.
Michael Robinson, lead pastor of Greater Enon Missionary Baptist Church, called overdose prevention sites a “sponsored drug den” and asked whether those now serving jail time for possessing similar drugs be considered for release.
Some saw racial inequality in the opening of an overdose prevention site.
Solomon Jones, a WURD radio host and columnist, said the easing of law enforcement for those involved in the opioid epidemic, which affects more whites in the city, compared to the crack epidemic, which affected more people of color, was the “gentrification of addiction.”
“This is an issue of race,” he said, “because when it was us, there were jails, institutions and death. But now there are safe injection sites with cushy places for people to go and use drugs.”
Supporters of overdose prevention sites said they were part of a continuum of care and improve communities, among other things.
Bonnie Milas, professor of clinical anesthesiology and critical care at the University of Pennsylvania, said she lost her only two sons to opioid overdoses. Banning overdose prevention sites would push more people into the shadows and result in more overdose deaths, she said.
“This bill seems just like a smokescreen for a ban,” Milas said, adding, “It amazes me that we’re sitting here talking about making a medical decision and we’re listening to public opinion.”
Farley said an overdose prevention site should be used as one of many tools to drive down overdose deaths in Philadelphia. The health commissioner added a supervised injection site does not offer drugs, and improves communities by reducing the number of drug users on the street and offering them a “safe place to inject.”
Overdose deaths have skyrocketed in Philadelphia over the last decade.
In 2010, the city had 387 drug-related overdose deaths, of which 297 involved opioids, according to city data.
The city’s overdose deaths hit a high of 1,217 in 2017. The next year, the city logged 1,116 drug-related overdose deaths, of which 939 involved opioids.
According to the most recent data, the city had 564 overdose deaths, 465 of which were opioid-related, between January and June 30 in 2019.
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.