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Philadelphia was once poised to open the nation’s first supervised injection or safe consumption site.
Instead, it’s about to become the first major city to enact a near-total ban on such sites.
Philadelphia City Council passed legislation Thursday that will ban what are sometimes called overdose prevention centers in nearly all neighborhoods and city districts.
These centers and sites exist in New York City and soon in Rhode Island, but have largely remained controversial in the U.S. They are places where people can bring and use illegal drugs and substances under the supervision of others who can intervene in cases of overdose.
The proposed ban passed in a 13 to 1 vote, with Councilmember Kendra Brooks casting the single no vote. The legislation next goes to Mayor Jim Kenney for final approval.
Kenney has previously expressed support for these sites.
In an email, the Mayor’s Office stated that the administration “remains supportive of the overdose prevention center model and would welcome the opportunity to support safe and effective operation, following a robust community engagement and outreach process.”
But officials declined to say what the mayor would do with the new bill.
If Kenney issues a veto, the bill will go back to city council, which can override his decision with a 12-member supermajority.
Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, who represents parts of Kensington and Harrowgate in District 7, led the bill’s passage.
Lozada pointed out that most people who testified Thursday in support of the sites and against the ban proposal are not residents of neighborhoods like Kensington and Harrowgate, home to the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast.
“It is disturbing to me that the voices of the people who don’t have to deal with the day-to-day trauma that our children and our community have to deal with, it is disturbing to me they think that their voices should be louder than those who walk those streets every day,” Lozada said.
But Rosalind “Roz” Pichardo, a longtime resident of the Kensington area, said she didn’t feel like her voice was represented in Thursday’s vote. She was at City Hall in opposition to the ban.
“How many more people have to die because of this ‘no’ today?” she said. “They don’t want to see people lying on the street. They don’t want to see people injecting — then provide a space that would provide them recovery if they need it … and a safe place to use, and a place that can and will save their life if they overdose.”
Pichardo said she has administered naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal medication, more than 2,000 times in the last decade, mostly to people in her community.
“I feel like the city is failing the folks who are unhoused and with substance use disorder by not doing everything they can to save their lives,” she said.
The legislation creates a zoning rule in nine out of 10 city districts that prohibits a “narcotic injection site.” It will not apply to District 3, home to West and Southwest Philadelphia.
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents that district, was absent from Thursday’s City Council meeting and vote. However, she stated her opposition to the ban in a press release.
“When we are talking about saving lives, we should not take anything off the table,” Gauthier said. “I know my colleagues are just as concerned as I am by the drug crisis, and I am unwilling to deny my constituents their right to at least consider a tool that has been proven to save lives in other jurisdictions.”
During public comment preceding the vote, at least one community member requested that District 3 be added to the zoning ban, which went unfulfilled.
Philadelphia does not currently have an overdose prevention center or safe consumption site. The nonprofit Safehouse has been trying to open and operate the city’s first location for many years, but has become entangled in a long series of legal challenges.
Safehouse is currently engaged in a federal civil lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice, first filed in 2021. That case is ongoing.
Ronda Goldfein, executive director of AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and a member of Safehouse’s legal team, said Thursday’s passage of a near-total citywide ban on future consumption sites does not affect the federal lawsuit.
However, should Safehouse win its case, Goldfein said the citywide ban would make it more difficult to find a location for a center.
Organizations or groups can still request to build a safe consumption site in a zone covered by the ban. They would need to appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment at the Philadelphia Department of Planning and Development and secure support from community leaders.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24-hour hotline that offers referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Call 1-800-662-HELP for more information.