If the War on Drugs were seeking a motto, “One step forward, two steps back,” might be rejected as overly optimistic. That’s particularly apparent in Philadelphia. On June 24, US District Judge Gerald A. McHugh hit pause on his landmark ruling—which was confirmed in February, and on which I reported for Filter—that a safe consumption site in the city would not violate federal law.
In the wake of the pandemic and the George Floyd protests, “the nerves of citizens are frayed by fear and uncertainty,” Judge McHugh wrote—effectively ending any plans for the nonprofit Safehouse to open a site in the immediate future, though without contradicting his previous ruling on its legality.
Ronda Goldfein, who sits on the Safehouse board, told Filter that while the judge’s ruling—which came in response to a motion from the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Bill McSwain—brings further delay, it also ultimately strengthens the judicial case in favor of Safehouse.
“In the ruling the judge goes point-by-point with even more detail on why he believes this lifesaving intervention does not violate [the Controlled Substances Act]. We now have three published legal rulings that support our position,” Goldfein said, adding that Safehouse did not have any immediate plans to open anyway.
The city has a long history of fluctuating between historic reform and regressive populism.
Safehouse will now file its case with the Appeals Court on June 29, and Goldfein said that a conclusion to the legal saga could come by the fall.
The city has a long history of fluctuating between historic reform and the kind of regressive populism common in old strongholds for ward-style machine politics. It’s been three years since Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney convened a task force to “combat the opioid epidemic” in the city. Coming in the wake of a sharp rise in overdoses attributed to illicit fentanyl, its result was a set of imperfect but promising recommendations, including methadone and naloxone awareness, that seemed likely to put the City of Brotherly Love on a better path.
The election of Larry Krasner as district attorney later that year, on a platform that included support for safe consumption sites (SCS) to prevent deaths, seemed to confirm this direction.
Overdose fatalities in Philly have declined, according to official figures and just about everyone working in harm reduction in Philly. But drug issues are more divisive than ever.
Drug policy reform advocates learned that anew at the beginning of this year, during a rally in South Philadelphia which featured the surreal sight of prominent Philadelphia Democrats stoking anti-SCS sentiment before a sea of people in Trump 2020 swag. Safe consumption, they promised, was as good as dead in Philadelphia.
In February, after Judge McHugh declared SCS legal in Eastern Pennsylvania, South Philly neighborhood opposition, including a petition, rapidly ended the Safehouse plan to open a site there immediately.
By other measures, the lives of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable drug users, many of whom are unstably housed or homeless in Kensington, are worse than they have been at any time since February 2017, when I began covering the neighborhood full-time. Law enforcement clearances of encampments that functioned as de facto safe consumption sites have spread misery, and the awful year of 2020 has seen the community buffeted, as Judge McHugh noted, first by the impacts of the coronavirus lockdown and then by those of the George Floyd protests and police responses.
Although the coronavirus was an act of nature that caught civic planners and just about all of us off guard, it doesn’t take a keen eye to see that things have been unraveling for years.
A few years ago, the park was hailed as the first step in a community revival.
One symbol of this is the fate of a major effort to revitalize a dilapidated park in Kensington called McPherson Square (pictured above). It had been known for many years as “needle park,” both to locals and to the visitors who went there to inject drugs.
A few years ago, the park made news for its transformation, and the naloxone-carrying librarians at the McPherson Square branch of the Philadelphia Free Library symbolized a massive collaborative effort to bring historically high overdose rates down. It was hailed as the first step in a community revival, although the presence, as recently as 2018, of a 24/7 mobile police headquarters in the park divided opinion.
“Kids are starting to call this park ‘their’ park,” said Awilda Ocasio, president of Friends of McPherson Square Park, in a 2014 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, shortly after the opening of a new playground. “There was so much apathy before. Last year, we planted about 90 trees, beautiful trees, and the kids on the playground now will be here to see them grow. We’ve come a long way.”
Yet city officials would learn that a single victory, in the context of status-quo drug war politics, is easily reversed. Today, the park is once again full of visitors using drugs—people who might have chosen to visit a sanctioned safe consumption site, were one available.
“The police don’t bother us at all,” said Macy, who lives in Wildwood, New Jersey, but spends a couple of days each week at McPherson Square. I encountered her the other day in the park, as she was searching for something she had lost. “They don’t come in unless they have to. No one really gives a shit.”
She happily gave permission for me to take and publish her picture.
On the other side of the park, by the playground, I started up a conversation with Victor, a young, tattooed Latino man who was attending to several small children. I asked if the public drug use bothered him.
“Yeah, I mean, I don’t like them to see that,” he said, nodding toward a boy who looked about six.
But he seemed resolved to the reality all the same. “If I come in and someone is already getting high, I won’t tell them to move. But if they sit down and get started while the kids have been playing, then I’ll say something.”
I found something admirable in his openness to the idea that the park belongs to everyone. But his words also served as a sad reminder of the unique indignities suffered by low-income and marginalized communities. I then asked about the safety aspect: Was he ever afraid his kids would play with the used syringes that are strewn around?
“God, no,” he said. “They know. I’ve taught them.”
McPherson Square’s makeover did take into account the possibility that some people would continue to inject there—in the form of a single sharps container at the front of the park that took years to get installed.
Some cops on the nearby streets have continued with an utterly counterintuitive strategy.
Although the police are rarely seen at McPherson Square these days, some cops on the nearby streets of Kensington have continued with a strategy so utterly counterintuitive that it’s hard to imagine anyone actually came up with it.
Since the police closed the last of four bridge encampments that housed or temporarily sheltered hundreds of people throughout the winter of 2018, small encampments have sprung up down the secluded side-streets off the main business strip of Kensington Ave, where drugs are often sold. The cops have kept on pushing people out of those.
This senseless protocol ironically echoes what drug sellers across Kensington, whose work the police have failed to significantly disturb, have long termed, “Cop and roll.”
But where are people without homes expected to roll to?
Many have made their way back to “needle park.” Others, in further demonstration of the absurd futility of this city strategy, have even begun to gather at the site of one of the old bridge camps, where just a year ago they were forbidden to so much as sit down.
A few days ago, I sat under the shade of a makeshift tent next to a set of railroad tracks on what, in 2017, was the most contested piece of land in the city—pitting Mayor Kenney against the railroad behemoth Conrail in his effort to stop people from injecting drugs on the company’s property.
I was there with a source of mine, who injected a speedball while I swatted at mosquitoes. Two other people soon joined us in a small patch of cleared foliage behind a hole in a fence that was constructed by Conrail, under the threat of a lawsuit filed by the city. The hole is almost as old as the fence itself.
For all the time, effort and money spent on closing the area, it’s open again, with only a swarm of hungry mosquitoes to contest it.
Photographs by Christopher Moraff