A controversial petition calling for Philadelphia to create safe injection clinics has been making the rounds online in hopes of eventually landing on Mayor Jim Kenney’s desk.
Created by Dan Martino and fellow activists at the Philadelphia Overdose Prevention Initiative (POPI), the idea is to build a site where drug users can self-inject in a safe and sterile environment. They would also have access to clean needles, sanitary facilities and, most importantly, access to medical professionals who can connect them with rehabilitation and other health resources.
“I hear people complaining that this is enabling,” Martino said. “Doing nothing is enabling. We’ve already tried policing, and it’s not working.”
More than 900 people died from heroin or opioid overdoses in Philadelphia last year compared to 277 homicide deaths, according to police records.
Several of the people who signed Martino's petition knew at least one person included in that tally.
“I'm signing because my best friend's fiancé was 1 of the 900," wrote Katie Koplitz on the petition’s website. “I'm signing because at the young ages of 18 & 19 I lost both of my parents to overdoses," wrote Erin Hetrick. "It has affected me in many ways and I pray that this helps fight the opioid epidemic."
The comments go on and on, tallying up to more than 600 at the time this article was published.
Nationally, drug overdose deaths involving heroin increased from 8 percent in 2010 to 25 percent in 2015, according to a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Similarly, overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids increased from 8 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2015.
In Philadelphia, more than 55,000 residents are thought to be misusing or abusing opioids, city officials said.
Often users will quickly move from powerful painkillers to heroin when they can no longer afford the legal drugs. NBC10 recently explored this transition and how the crisis is claiming an increasing number of lives in a special, six-month long investigation, Generation Addicted.
Like many people who live near the epicenter of this growing epidemic, Martino is not exempt from tragedy. His sister’s fiance overdosed on fentanyl in a friend’s basement three years ago. Martino had to keep her from jumping into her partner’s casket at the funeral, he said. Meanwhile, Martino’s cousin continues to struggle with addiction. He travels to the Kensington section of North Philadelphia to get high, and often returns home without shoes or his wallet.
“When you pass out, you get robbed,” Martino said.
“I meet people every day who deal with this. When you have 900 deaths, you know at least one person who has been affected by this.”
Safe injection clinics are not necessarily new, though there are no such programs currently operating in the area. They first popped up in Europe in the 1980s, and have since spread to Australia, Canada and now to the United States.
Seattle approved the nation’s first injection clinic last month. Opponents countered these sites would only serve to promote drug use, but the city’s mayor considered it a public health solution.
“These sites save lives and that is our goal in Seattle/King County,” Democratic Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement.
Boston, New York City and Ithaca, New York are also considering similar programs.
“It's time to embrace options that embrace harm reduction,” said Paul Cherashore, POPI co-founder and co-creator of the petition.
“This is already in people’s backyards and frontyards and front steps. It’s time to put it into a contained site.”
Martino, who doubles as the Olde Richmond Civic Association secretary, lives close to the heart of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis. The intersection of Kensington and Allegheny is just one mile away from his home, and the infamous "El Campamento" is not much further. There, “an ocean of dirty needles” litter an already squalid scene filled with trash, clothes and drug users seeking any semblance of privacy, Martino said.
While the 'The Tracks,' as they're known -- located in the Fairhill area of North Philadelphia -- provides some cover from the casual observer, it also prevents neighbors and first responders from accessing people in need. Frequently, only other users are present when someone overdoses.
“It’s like a third world country,” he said. “There are no nurses standing by under a bridge. There is no connection to rehab in a playground.”
Last year, Martino participated in a neighborhood clean-up along Aramingo Street just outside the quickly gentrifying Fishtown area. At a local Wawa, Martino discovered 11 used needles.
“The last thing I want to see is a toddler putting a dirty in his mouth,” he said.
“Even if you don’t care about an addict or you don’t care if an addict gets clean, you at least care if there are dirty needles. Injection sites can help prevent that.”
In response to the ongoing crisis, Kenney formed The Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic last year. The task force was given 90 days to review five areas of concern, including prevention strategies, law enforcement and public education.
A spokesman for Kenney’s office declined to comment on Martino’s petition, but said the mayor will weigh all options when the task force presents its recommendations at the end of those 90 days.