Philadelphia Wants to Be First U.S. City to Open Safe Injection Sites

Pennsylvania's attorney general doesn't approve of proposal, says program isn't "an effective path to treatment"

Pennsylvania's attorney general doesn't approve of safe injection site proposal, says program isn't "an effective path to treatment." Credit: LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

Though Seattle has already set aside a budget for safe injection sites, Philadelphia city officials announced Tuesday that it is pushing to become the first U.S. city to open supervised drug-injection sites to combat its rampant opioid overdose epidemic.

Safe-injection sites, also called safe-consumption sites, are centers where people can shoot up illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who are able to administer an overdose antidote if necessary. Additionally, the centers provide access to addiction rehabilitation services and clean medical supplies, like needles.

Dr. Thomas Farley, the city's health commissioner, said the primary purpose of the sites would be to encourage drug users to seek treatment for their addictions.

"No one here condones or supports illegal drug use in any way," Farley said, according to CBS News. "We want people saddled with drug addiction to get help." Farley further added that "these sites serve as sites to bring people into drug treatment. We don't see this as simply a site for supervised injection."

The details of the proposed sites – including locations, timeline and framework for overseeing the program – are as yet unclear, and Farley said the city's hope in putting forth the idea is that they will attract the right people and organizations to make the proposal a reality.

"Part of what we're doing here today is publicizing this interest in the hopes that there are funders who will appear who care about saving lives and see this as an opportunity to do so," he said.

Philadelphia currently has the highest opioid death rate of any large U.S. city, with more than 1,200 people fatally overdosing in 2017, one-third more than in 2016.

The proposed centers are being met with swift criticism. "There is no safe way to inject heroin, fentanyl and carfnentanyl," Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement. "These are dangerous drugs with devastating consequences." He added that the program isn't "an effective path to treatment."

Other officials seemed more uncertain about how establishing such centers would affect their respective departments and duties.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross told CBS News that he was initially "completely, totally adamant against" the idea of safe injection sites, but tried to keep an open mind about the possibilities, especially after connecting with his counterpart in Vancouver, Canada, where there are two sites.

"There's a lot of lives being lost and that is something that, in the world of public safety, we certainly cannot just throw our hands up and say, 'That's not my problem,'" he said.

At present, no U.S. city has established a safe injection site, though Seattle has set aside $1.3 million to create one there. Both Canada and Europe have had safe injection sites, some cities for more than 10 years.