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Updated 8:30 a.m.
A big traffic snarl overtook Center City Wednesday afternoon, backing up cars along Broad Street and causing gridlock as activists staged a sit-in protest around City Hall’s roundabout for more than 20 minutes.
The disruption was deliberate. Its purpose: To call attention to an overdose crisis that claimed more than 1,200 lives last year in Philadelphia.
Harm reduction coalition ACT UP Philadelphia, which organized the demonstration, called on members of City Council to release funding for “the immediate construction” of a safe injection facility. Alternatively known as Overdose Prevention Sites or Comprehensive User Engagement Sites, these controversial and widely misperceived facilities offer life-saving medical assistance to drug users, in addition to a wide range of social services.
While Philly expressed early interest for the nation’s first safe injection facilities last year, movement has been sluggish since. No council members appeared at the protest happening right outside their windows.
Officials say the city is still waiting on private funding. Activists said City Council could step up to the plate.
The city supports overdose prevention sites on paper. But they won’t fund one.
Philadelphia and other cities that have voiced support for safe injection sites face considerable pressure from the Trump administration. Operating a facility that facilitates illicit drug use is a federal felony.
In a widely shared New York Times op-ed on Tuesday, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein warned numerous cities that the federal government will “meet the opening of any injection site with swift and aggressive action.” On Wednesday, Rosenstein told WHYY that Philly was no exception.
Legal experts say that while state governments have authority to make such facilities legal under state law, that would not protect them from a federal crackdown. The ambiguous legality of the sites could also jeopardize the careers of medical personnel who work on the sites, harm reduction advocates say.
But in Philly, local government has not committed to funding or maintaining the facility directly. Rather, Mayor Jim Kenney pitched private organizations to fund the medically supervised liability with the blessing of his administration.
After months of no movement, activists are calling for more commitment. Few City Council members have issued vocal support for the idea.
“We will all be dead if we wait for Council to move,” said ACT UP member Sam Sitrin in a statement. “This protest is about one thing: stopping overdoses. No one has ever died at an overdose prevention site.”
City Council hasn’t bought into the idea
Activists repeatedly singled out Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose 7th District encompasses parts of Kensington hardest hit by the overdose crisis.
“Maria said no, she’s got to go!” they chanted more than half a dozen times at Wednesday’s action.
The reference was to Quiñones-Sánchez’s early opposition to opening a medical drug-use facility in her district — a key hurdle for activists.
In response to protesters, the two-term councilwoman cited her efforts to lower access barriers for addiction treatment services and emergency housing. While she shares activists’ frustration with the city’s laggard response to the crisis, she stood by her earlier statements about opening a facility in her district.
“My first duty is to my constituents and the community I was elected to serve,” she told Billy Penn, “and today’s advocates who don’t live in the impacted area didn’t change that.”
Amid the conflict, fatal overdoses dropped 17 percent citywide in the first quarter of 2018, which officials attribute to the increasingly widespread distribution of naloxone in hotspots for opioid use. Health experts project a supervised injection facility in Philly would save somewhere between 25 and 75 lives annually, but for Sterling Johnson, an ACT UP Philadelphia organizer, that’s worth the fight.
“Zero people have ever died in an overdose prevention site,” Johnson said, “that’s all I need to hear.”