PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — In the wake of 1,200 opioid deaths in Philadelphia last year, the city’s top law enforcement and government officials have announced support for centers where drug addicts could inject in a safe environment without fear of arrest.
“These are unprecedented times and these are unprecedented actions,” said Philadelphia Managing Director Mike Diberardinis.
He encouraged private-sector providers to make proposals to the city for operating the sites, which officials called CUES (Comprehensive User Engagement Sites).
He was joined by Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, District Attorney Larry Krasner, Police Commissioner Richard Ross, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel and many other high-level officials but they had few details to share since the proposal is in its early stages.
Other U.S. cities are also working on establishing safe injection sites but none have opened them, though they are common internationally. Philadelphia officials toured sites in Vancouver, Canada, and commissioned a study on their effectiveness which Farley says showed they would save 24 to 76 lives a year in Philadelphia.
“Our brothers, our sisters, our parents, our children are dying and they don’t need to die,” said Farley “We have an obligation to do everything we can to prevent those people from dying.”
Farley conceded the idea might make some people uncomfortable but stressed the city is not condoning or supporting drug use.
“More than anyone, we want every person who is saddled with drug addiction to get treated and maintain long-term recovery,” he said, “but we recognize how difficult addiction is and we are facing an epidemic of historic proportions.”
Farley said the sites would be medically supervised and provide essential services to reduce fatal overdoses and drug use, including referral to treatment, wound care, access to sterile injection equipment and the overdose-preventative naloxone.
Officials showed different levels of enthusiasm for the idea.
“I started completely, totally adamant against this,” said Ross.
After consulting with law enforcement colleagues in Vancouver, he says he has an open mind.
“I really have a lot of questions, for example, what would our role be, what does that look like, what am I asking police officers to do? But I do know this. There’s a lot of lives being lost and that is something that, in the world of public safety, we certainly cannot just throw up our hands up and say, ‘That’s not my problem’.”
District Attorney Larry Krasner, on the other hand, was an avid supporter, comparing CUES to the needle exchange that saved lives during the AIDS epidemic in the 90s.
At that time, he said, the state attorney general threatened to arrest harm-reduction groups such as Prevention Point on drug paraphernalia charges. Krasner said he would take the opposite approach.
“We will allow God’s work to go on,” he said. “We will make sure that idealistic medical students don’t get busted for saving lives. We will do so not just because it is the right thing to do and the moral thing to do but we will do it because the law of justification in Pennsylvania says that, sometimes, you can commit a minor violation in the interest of preventing a greater harm.”
Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy conceded that the city could not stop federal law enforcement from prosecuting those running and using CUES.
“I think we’re confident and hopeful that the federal government has more important things to do than to not save people’s lives,” he said.
“I think the city has already shown that when it needs to do something to save lives, we’re going to go forward and do that,” added Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director for Health and Human Services.
Indeed, said Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, while acknowledging his own unanswered questions about the tactic, “If anybody can make this work, this city can.”