A friend from Colorado once expressed shock during her first visit to Philadelphia, which included a drive through North Philly. “It’s like Syria,” she said.
Many drug policy reformers express distaste for using the term “war” to describe US drug policy, pointing out its subtle appeal to patriotism in framing an “us against them” approach to millions of our own citizens.
But on many front lines—like the streets of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, where police have spent decades vacillating between indifference to the vibrant drug trade (on occasion becoming participants themselves) and all out slash-and-burn tactics—our responses to illicit drug use have cut a path of truly war-like devastation.
On March 13 I joined some luminaries in harm reduction, public policy, law and addiction medicine as a panelist at a summit in Philly. Its goal was to unpack America’s undying devotion to zero-tolerance drug policy, and consider how we can do better.
Fellow participants included trailblazers in drug reform, such as Drug Policy Alliance’s founder and former leader Ethan Nadelmann, one of the most effective critics of US drug policy since long before reform ideas were mainstream—and Major Neill Franklin, who spent three decades in the drug war’s trenches as a police officer in Maryland, before disavowing drug prohibition entirely and helping form Law Enforcement Action Partnership*, which he leads.
Instead of merely failing, our compulsive attempts to stem the flow of illicit drugs generate new threats.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, responsible for a number of groundbreaking reforms, was also there. Perhaps more surprisingly, so too was a representative of US Attorney Bill McSwain—who recently filed a lawsuit seeking to block the nonprofit group Safehouse from opening the nation’s first legal safer consumption site. There are more than 100 such sites operating across the globe, in which people who use drugs are monitored by medical professionals; they have been demonstrated to prevent fatal overdoses and reduce transmission of blood-borne illnesses.
The symposium—hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Journal of Law and Public Affairs—was aptly called “Addicted to the War on Drugs.”
Instead of merely failing, our compulsive attempts to stem the flow of illicit drugs generate new threats. Synthetic, lab-made drugs—including fentanyl—have flooded the market. Today, the substances that people ingest are typically half the price and exponentially riskier than they were in 1998. That was the year that Mayor John Street launched “Operation Sunrise”—sending hundreds of officers onto the streets of West Kensington to arrest people for possessing as little as a $5 baggie of marijuana.
I’ve been reminded of this costly and ultimately futile endeavor recently, in the wake of the forced closure of the so-called “bridge encampments,” where hundreds of people who use drugs lived in tents and were largely left to their own devices by Philly authorities. The last of the four camps was cleared last month, and their former residents, now scattered and uprooted, frequently describe living in a constant state of anxiety, fearful of law enforcement, tainted drugs and the threat of violence—which has spiked.
The camps may be gone, but the drugs, and the violence associated with unregulated markets in turmoil, remain. On March 3, as I accompanied David Menschel, a well-known attorney and philanthropist, on a tour of the neighborhood, two separate shootings occurred at the former site of one of the camps, known to locals as “Emerald City.”
In the afternoon, I heard a series of pops as I retrieved my car to return to where I’d left David speaking with a group of outreach workers. I watched as police officers scoured the ground for shell casings. Later, sources told me that someone fired random shots toward a cluster of people waiting to buy drugs at the site, which has become contested territory since the camp closure.
The motive for the crime is unknown, but the last time I saw James his face was swollen from a recent beating.
The next morning brought even more shocking news. I learned that just hours after the first shooting, an occasional source of mine, who I’ll call “James,” had been killed in a targeted execution at the same location.
James lived in a house near the camp. I usually encountered him shuttling drugs or money back and forth to one of at least two drug “sets” that controlled the camp. The motive for the crime is unknown, but the last time I saw James his face was swollen from a recent beating. Like many who wind up suffering similarly violent ends, James’s rap sheet showed multiple arrests for drug-related crimes. As a runner, James barely supported his own drug habit.
Rumor has it that two members of a rival drug gang gunned him down. Another person told me he was suspected of being an informant. Whatever the case, his death was tragic and unnecessary. He was 41 years old.
Earlier that day, David and I talked to another street “trapper”—the term used here to describe the last line in the drug distribution channel, responsible for hand-to-hand sales. I asked them how business was going, having heard that local drug users were sometimes spending more than an hour finding a source of heroin/fentanyl.
“We been closed for three weeks,” said the source, whose employer operates three different corners, each with its own branded “stamp” bag. “Someone was killed on the block with a bundle of our dope in their pocket. We’re supposed to open tomorrow. We had to change all the stamps.”
Before we parted, this person directed our attention to the door of their rented house (which costs $800 a month, is infested with rodents, and has a “weird smell” coming from the basement). It had been kicked in recently by the owner, who was angry his corner wasn’t open yet.
“He offered to pay to fix it, but he hasn’t yet,” the person said.
For most drug dealers in Kensington, the average pay is little better than minimum wage. And the risks associated are often far more severe than a broken door.
As I sat on the panel at Penn, with academics ruminating on policy options and the need for “more funding for treatment,” this is the point I kept hammering home: Drugs are not going away—and not everyone wants treatment.
And yet we remain trapped in the echo chamber of our predecessors’ axioms: drugs are bad, and “treatment” will fix the addiction problem; there just isn’t enough of it.
But today, I could make a single phone call and have an intake appointment tomorrow at one of the city’s methadone clinics for anyone who asked me. Treatment often is available. But getting there isn’t easy for everyone. And staying there is even harder, thanks to America’s punitive requirements for methadone patients—showing up daily, and many other inconvenient and stigmatizing conditions. If you have a job or kids, it’s nearly impossible (try finding an employer who’s willing to give you time off three days a week for mandatory therapy). A physician who works at once such clinic once told me, “It’s almost impossible to be a single mother and make it in this place.”
Over the past few years, public rhetoric on illicit drug use has tilted away from near-total focus on criminal justice interventions to a dialogue on mental health and public health. But I’ve had a front-row view of how even a “kinder, gentler” approach wreaks destruction in marginalized communities if it remains tinged with misinformation, fear-mongering, and unawareness of how seemingly benign policies impact people at ground level.
As home to one of the most vibrant open-air drug markets in the US, Philly has emerged as a laboratory of American drug policy—visibly scarred from past and continuing failures that have gotten worse even as the city has recently enacted some of the most progressive drug policy reforms of any large US city. For example, in 2014 Philly decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana-and yet synthetic cannabinoids (which under state law are a felony to possess in any amount) have flooded the streets, even turning up in the heroin supply.
Drug policy isn’t the only cause of harms, of course. Kensington was once the textiles capital of America, and the landscape is still peppered with hulking shells that each once employed hundreds of workers. Deindustrialization took its toll, opportunities diminished, and by the 1980s Philadelphia had some of the highest numbers of abandoned buildings in the country.
An underground drugs economy flourished—and policymakers found themselves battling the tenets of capitalism itself. Adam Smith would be stunned by their hubris.
In 2017 we elected District Attorney Krasner, who made his name fighting against policies like stop and frisk, and famously represented the city’s syringe exchange program, Prevention Point Philadelphia, at a time (the early 1990s) when most Americans still viewed even pot smokers as morally degenerate. And this year the city introduced medication-assisted treatment in the Philadelphia County jail system.
Yet, as I pointed out during the day’s final panel (on social work and community engagement), marijuana reform is meaningless if you happen to be enrolled in a methadone program—many of which still routinely deny clients “take-home” doses if THC is detected in their urine. This happens despite the fact that medical marijuana is approved in some states for the treatment of opioid dependence, and there is no federal requirement that clinics test for it.
From my vantage point, when it comes to the War on Drugs, the more things change the more they stay the same.
We often look to Washington for someone to blame for these kinds of contradictions; but it’s said that all politics is local. And the politics of prohibition is no different. Washington has enormous power when it comes to drug enforcement, but it is Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro—considered a progressive Democrat—who is clocking arrests at a record clip.
Yes, it’s refreshing to know that the overdose crisis has forced America to talk about an issue many families preferred to keep in the closet. But from my vantage point, when it comes to the War on Drugs, the more things change the more they stay the same.
We need an honest discussion of why people use drugs and a willingness to accept that many will continue to do so, regardless of whether policymakers use a carrot or a stick approach.
*Law Enforcement Action Partnership is the fiscal sponsor of The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter.