Blue lights bathe the bathroom at a Center City Starbucks

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If you walk into a Starbucks bathroom in Philadelphia, there’s a chance you could find yourself bathed in blue light. Don’t look around for the lava lamps. It’s not a 1970s throwback — it’s an effort to discourage customers from injecting drugs there.

At least, that’s the apparent reason the coffee giant would swap out standard yellow bulbs for those with a cobalt hue.

Blue lights have been deployed for years to deter people from using intravenous drugs. The glow masks the blue-tinted lines of veins beneath skin, making it much harder to find one and inject. In 2018, the bulbs gained popularity in retail locations around the country.

A Billy Penn survey of six Center City Starbucks locations turned up two bathrooms bathed in blue light: one at 10th and Chestnut, and one at Broad and Pine. Folks on Facebook have reported another at the Broad and Snyder outpost.

This development comes just over a year after Starbucks changed company policy to open its restrooms to everyone, including people who haven’t bought anything.

Starbucks spokesperson Bailey Adkins wouldn’t confirm much about the blue lights — not when, where, how or why they’ve been installed.

“There’s the expectation that everyone behaves in a way that respects that community,” she said in answer to repeated queries about the lights. “We at Starbucks are committed to creating that environment where everybody feels welcome and valued and respected.”

Addiction recovery advocates say blue bulbs do the opposite for people who inject.

“It’s not, ‘We want to welcome them,’” said Devin Reaves, executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition. “It’s, ‘We want to push them into the shadows.’”

Starbucks appears to recognize how people may be using the bathrooms. It has installed syringe drop boxes in many of them at Philly stores — giving people who inject a place to dispose of their used equipment.

Allison Herens, Philadelphia’s harm reduction coordinator, told KYW Newsradio last year that this is a clear response to the opioid epidemic. All six of the surveyed Center City stores had a syringe drop box installed.

A syringe dropbox in a Center City Starbucks Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Are the blue lights effective? Unclear

The cafe chain isn’t the first to try the blue light strategy to cope with Philly’s addiction epidemic. City government handed out bulbs to Kensington residents starting in January of 2018, meant to be installed outside their homes to shoo away people who use drugs.

“This is not to get them to stop using drugs,” city spokesperson Alicia Taylor told Billy Penn at the time. “This is in response to neighbors who were upset about people using on their front steps.”

Philly’s addiction crisis is among the worst in the nation. Though overdose deaths dipped slightly in the city from two years ago, the 2018 total was still enormous: 1,116 people died due to accidental overdoses. A local nonprofit is working to combat the problem by opening an overdose prevention site in the city, despite backlash from U.S. Attorney William McSwain.

When it comes to blue lights as an effective deterrent, experts aren’t really on board.

A Harm Reduction Journal report from 2013 says the lights are unlikely to deter people from using intravenous drugs. People will likely still use as they originally planned — but the reduced visibility can cause injury, like “abscess and damage to veins.”

The research also shows that light bulbs further stigmatize drug use and manifest as “symbolic violence” against people with addiction.

Even if the bulbs succeed in pushing out people who want to inject, recovery expert Reaves said that’s a dangerous strategy.

“I would rather see somebody use drugs in a Starbucks where if they did, God forbid, experience an overdose, that somebody could get to them, Narcan them and save their lives,” he said. “As opposed to someone shooting up in a back alley or an abandoned house.”

Philadelphia’s Health Department is still giving out blue light bulbs to neighbors who ask for them, according to spokesperson Jim Garrow, but only until the supply runs out. After that, the city will reevaluate the strategy’s effectiveness, he said.

“The opioid epidemic is unprecedented,” Garrow said, “and the city is willing to try a variety of tactics to help support those with opioid use disorder.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...