Philadelphia officials announced in January that the city would pursue the establishment of a safe injection site.
Eight months later, one state politician is working to stop them dead in their tracks.
On Aug. 31, state Rep. Jerry Knowles of Tamaqua in Schuylkill County pitched an idea to his colleagues in the Pa. House: If Philly actually goes through with the safe injection idea, let’s halt all state funding to the city.
Knowles’ memorandum, which lays out his plans to introduce legislation to that effect, is “a shot across the bow,” he told Billy Penn. It’s intended “to let Philadelphia know there are common sense people watching what they do.”
The state rep isn’t the first to express disapproval of the concept. Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro has spoken out against it. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams at first seemed to show support, but then quickly backtracked. Locally, community meetings on the topic have sometimes included more shouting than productive conversation (although local activists have held protest rallies in its favor).
The idea is so contentious that there’s no clear direction on what to call it. Recovery advocates often call these facilities overdose prevention sites, while the city has dubbed them comprehensive user engagement sites.
But while Knowles has company in his contempt, he’s the first to actually make moves on legislation that would punish Philadelphia for going through with the idea.
It’s a strategy reminiscent of President Donald Trump’s promise to halt federal grants to Philly if it continued to act as a sanctuary city. In June, a federal judge sided with Mayor Kenney’s administration, ruling that Trump didn’t have the right to take away federal dollars. Kenney was excited; Knowles less so.
“I think that the mayor is a little goofy,” said Knowles, who has visited Philly but never lived here. “I see the dancing and the carrying on with the sanctuary cities, you’d think he hit the Pennsylvania lottery for a million dollars.”
‘The most insane thing I’ve ever heard’
Knowles insists he’s not disregarding the state’s addiction epidemic. He’d just rather focus his efforts on preventative education and treatment. His background as a Tamaqua police officer in the 1970s has likely influenced his views on drug policy, he noted.
“I really thought I had seen it all, and then I see something more outrageous than anything else,” Knowles said.
So will his potential bill scare Philly off?
“The evidence speaks for itself,” read a joint statement from the Mayor’s Office and the Philadelphia Health Department. “Overdose prevention sites can save lives and reduce neighborhood disorder. We cannot let more Philadelphians die preventable deaths.”
Data back up the city’s claim. About 40 peer-reviewed international studies show that overdose prevention sites can be effective in saving lives and increasing enrollment in treatment programs.
Knowles doesn’t buy it.
“I don’t know how anybody would believe that by creating safe injection sites, would in any way, shape or form, be part of any solution in dealing with this terrible drug issue we have,” he said. “That’s the most insane thing I’ve ever heard.”
Supporters reject that accusation. Instead, they call the idea innovative, a creative way to deal with an addiction epidemic that’s gotten so bad it requires new thinking.
“What’s insane is that the new normal in Pennsylvania is that year over year, the overdose death rate is increasing by 30 percent,” said Devin Reaves, executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition. “All solutions to save lives must be on the table.”
The city’s official statement takes the same tack. “History has proven that the way governments handled previous drug epidemics was wrong, and to repeat it will result in the same disasters,” the Mayor’s Office and Health Dept. wrote. “And just as local governments had to lead during the HIV epidemic, cities like ours will be on the forefront of saving lives in the opioid crisis.”
The next steps
Though it’s already been a couple weeks since Knowles put forth his memorandum, the bill he threatens to introduce probably doesn’t have a chance to make an impact any time soon. There aren’t enough session days left this year for him to make any meaningful progress, Knowles said.
In the past, Gov. Tom Wolf has opposed safe injection sites. If the legislation reaches his desk, he’ll review it, said his spokesperson Mark Nicastre.
Either way, an overdose prevention site in Philly is likely pretty far off. It would require private funding and oversight from a healthcare provider — and neither of those have so far publicly come forward.
“I’m laying groundwork here,” Knowles said. “If this continues, or becomes anything close to reality, I will then reintroduce it as soon as we go back next session.”