While Republicans are mostly unified in their opposition to so-called “safe injection” sites for habitual drug users, many Democrats from Philadelphia and the suburban counties have divergent views of the controversial idea that has played out elsewhere in the country but not Pennsylvania.
The split between Democrats in southeast Pennsylvania could illustrate that the party still perceives crime — and the link between how major urban policies sometimes spillover into the suburbs — could be an electoral weak spot for their party.
Safe injection locations are meant to foster “harm reduction” by providing a place where illicit drug users can obtain new, clean needles rather than using old, dirty needles that spread disease. Supporters of the idea also say the sites would lower overdose deaths.
In April, the first such proposed site in Philadelphia appeared to be gaining momentum which later fizzled.
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While Philly is struggling to launch the first such location, new opposition to the idea surfaced in the state senate — but not by Republicans. State Sen. Christine Tartaglione, a Philadelphia Democrat, sponsored a bill that would outlaw the sites completely. The bill has already been passed in the Republican-controlled Senate, but is lingering in the Democrat-controlled House.
But the senate debate is instructive, if for no other reason than it revealed the intra-party split on the issue.
“We are committed to finding the appropriate strategy, including adequately funding treatment and community-based recovery support services, to help curb this epidemic and dramatically decrease the amount of overdose deaths occurring in the Commonwealth,” Tartaglione wrote in the bill’s memorandum. In the same memorandum, however, she said, “Safe injection sites are counter-productive to this overall goal.”
Tartaglione represents part of Northeast Philly, and brings to the table her own struggles with alcohol addiction. Her bill passed in the Senate 41–9 earlier this month.
Also opposed to safe injection sites is Gov. Josh Shapiro. While the governor has been on the record about his reluctance on the narrow topic of safe injection sites, it’s not clear whether the governor would sign a bill that bans the concept across all corners of the commonwealth, or whether he might be inclined to yield to local control. A request to Shapiro’s office with this exact question was not returned.
Voting against the ban was Berks County Democrat State Senator Judith Schwank.
“It seems to me that it’s far better to make a connection with someone than having them use [drugs] in a dirty room and potentially overdose,” Schwank was quoted as saying in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “If we can keep people alive, maybe we can get them into treatment.”
State Sen. Nikil Saval, another Philadelphia Democrat, said the debate was “riddled with misconceptions.”
Saval said the sites were “consistent with principles of human rights and dignity. These spaces are tools with a single purpose: to reduce harm and promote health for some of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our society.”
In Democrat-controlled California, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed a pilot program to get going in certain cities across the state.
“I have long supported the cutting edge of harm reduction strategies,” Newsom said in a veto letter, according to the New York Times. “However, I am acutely concerned about the operations of safe injection sites without strong, engaged local leadership and well-documented, vetted, and thoughtful operational and sustainability plans.”
Meanwhile, the federal government has sponsored its first-ever paid research project into the policy issue. The research project is a four-year, $5 million endeavor headed up by New York University and Brown University.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports