Why the city is giving out blue light bulbs to deter drug use

And why recovery experts say it won’t help.

The city will hand out "toolkits," complete with blue light bulbs, to Kensington and Fairhill residents this month.

The city will hand out "toolkits," complete with blue light bulbs, to Kensington and Fairhill residents this month.

COURTESY / CITY OF PHILADELPHIA
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Last month, the Mayor’s Office announced a plan to ramp up its efforts to help people enter addiction recovery in Kensington and Fairhill. The plan includes an additional 10 winter homeless shelter beds and a van that will travel around the neighborhoods to try to get people into treatment.

It also includes blue light bulbs.

Residents in these neighborhoods can pick up “toolkits” packed with cleanup supplies, educational materials and a blue light bulb to install outside their homes, courtesy of the city.

Why? Because apparently blue light bulbs can make it harder to find a vein while injecting intravenous drugs. A western Pennsylvania Sheetz also started testing out this theory last month in its public restrooms.

“This is not to get them to stop using drugs,” said Alicia Taylor, a City of Philadelphia communications specialist, about the bulbs. “This is in response to neighbors who were upset about people using on their front steps.”

Devin Reaves, a Philadelphia recovery specialist, worries the bulbs send the wrong message. “This is pushing people even further into the margins,” he said. “I question — is that going to lead to more deaths?”

Reaves entered his own recovery in 2007, and said he’s never heard of blue light bulbs deterring intravenous drug use. To him, it sounds like more of the familiar not-in-my-backyard rhetoric surrounding people with addiction.

Kensington Avenue

Kensington Avenue

Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn

But Ed Zampitella is open to the idea. He’s been in recovery from substance use disorder since 1974. Before that, he was using inhalants for more than 25 years. In 2001, Zampitella bought a building in Kensington that later became the Last Stop Clubhouse, a space for regular Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings on Kensington Avenue near Somerset.

Zampitella said the blue light bulbs won’t help prevent intravenous drug use or overdoses at all — people will just use somewhere else.

Still, he said he’d install 10 of them outside his Kensington home if he could. Zampitella has heard his neighbors complain about drug use right outside their doors. He thinks the bulbs are an effective way to unite against one of the neighborhood’s most glaring problems.

“If we do our part and let the people be aware that we’re tired of it, it could help,” Zampitella said. “To see something lit up, it makes it harder for people to hang out in front of their house. It says, ‘We’re not taking this anymore.’”

A 2013 Harm Reduction Journal report sums up Zampitella’s original sentiments: blue light bulbs are unlikely to deter people from using intravenous drugs. Additionally, the report found, the bulbs can further stigmatize drug use and manifest as “symbolic violence” against people with addiction.

“I think we should spend as many resources as possible helping people get better, not chasing people away,” Reaves said. “If they’re in areas that are less traveled, people will overdose and die because no one will be able to find them. Is that the message we want to send to our most marginalized population?”

Reaves added that there are more effective options — including other efforts by the city — than blue light bulbs to help neighborhoods get some relief from drug addiction: housing, employment and intensive case management by addiction professionals.

“No blue light is going to fix this problem,” Reaves said. “This is even worse than a bandaid to fix a gushing wound.”