Philadelphia nonprofit sounds alarm on rising drug use

File photo: City workers and community groups work to clean up McPherson Square and the area around it, including disposing of used needles. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

File photo: City workers and community groups work to clean up McPherson Square and the area around it, including disposing of used needles. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Prevention Point Philadelphia said it collected more used syringes than clean ones distributed in the past 12 months, highlighting the increasing drug consumption following the pandemic.

According to PPP’s 2021-22 fiscal year report, more than 36,000 people received nearly 9 million new syringes from the nonprofit, but 10 million used ones have been turned in. It’s the first time in the program’s 30-year history it received more used syringes than new ones provided.

The collected syringes came from a combination of people returning used syringes, bio-hazard collections conducted by PPP staff, and community clean-ups with partner organizations and volunteers. Syringe exchange programs work to provide active users with clean needles to lower the risk of disease through contaminated needles. PPP collects syringes both at their main building in Kensington and through a mobile service.

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Executive Director José Benitez said this statistic could be impacted by the number of community cleanups the organization has conducted, but it’s also due to the increased drug consumption as a result of the pandemic.

“You would have probably assumed that we would see a drop right in the number of people using opioids, but that’s not true,” Benitez said. “What we did see is this exponential growth in people who are using opioids at this particular point.”

On top of this, Benitez says more people have been receiving aid from the organization; roughly more than triple in the past three years.

“In 2019, we were serving about 12,000 individuals and last year we saw 36,000,” Benitez said. “It’s, I think, also one more sign of how much the opioid use disorder has gone up.”

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Unintentional drug overdoses have increased sharply since the pandemic started in Philadelphia, with fentanyl being the main drug involved. In Pennsylvania, it’s estimated more than 5,200 people suffered accidental fatal overdoses last year.

According to the DEA, fentanyl, a strong synthetic opioid, is the Philadelphia area’s top local drug threat. According to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, 1,214 overdose deaths were reported in the city throughout 2020. Fentanyl was present in 979 of them.

A recent report has revealed polysubstance use, or the use of multiple drugs at the same time, has increased in both Pennsylvania and Delaware.

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