Safe Injection Sites Save Lives in Toronto, Canada. Will They Come to Philadelphia Next? - NBC 10 Philadelphia

Safe Injection Sites Save Lives in Toronto, Canada. Will They Come to Philadelphia Next?

Philadelphia political leaders are jostling over a proposal to put a safe injection site in Kensington. NBC10 took a trip to Toronto, Canada, to see how injection sites there operate.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Lessons Learned From Toronto's Safe Injection Sites

    A safe injection site is the controversial idea being proposed to fight the opioid crisis in Philadelphia. As the debate in our area continues, NBC10’s Lauren Mayk takes a look at the impact of existing sites in Toronto.

    (Published Wednesday, May 15, 2019)

    What to Know

    • Former Gov. Ed Rendell is a board member of the non-profit seeking to open a safe injection site in Philly. It would be the nation's first.

    • Toronto, Canada's largest city, has long had injection sites for illegal drugs like heroin. Other Canadian cities also have them.

    • Medical officials at those Canadian facilities told NBC10 during a recent visit that they are safe, and in fact have saved many lives.

    Philadelphia has yet to open a safe injection site, despite support from Mayor Jim Kenney and other political leaders like former Gov. Ed Rendell.

    In Toronto, Canada, however, several sites are already up and running. NBC10 took a trip to our northern neighbors' largest city — with nearly 5.5 million residents — to see the effect on neighborhoods.

    Safe injection sites there allow residents to use illegal drugs like heroin in a safe environment. Hypodermic needles, alcohol swabs and other paraphernalia needed to inject heroin are provided for free.

    So are life-saving medicines and equipment like Narcan. The system appears to be working for Toronto and its heroin-reliant population.

    No one has died at any of the safe injection sites since they first opened well over a decade ago, according to Dr. Rita Shahin, a physician at a site in Toronto called "The Works." The facility is run by the city Public Health Department.

    In fact, 800 lives have been saved at a single site in Toronto since it opened in August 2017. When heroin users overdose, staffers are on hand to inject Narcan.

    The reaction among residents in Toronto neighborhoods around the sites is mixed. Some say sidewalks once riddled with dirty needles and empty drug packets told NBC10 that they have noticed a decline in the heroin paraphernalia since the injection sites opened.

    "Well, I’ve noticed less disposed needles like on the streets," Jose Zamora, who lives near one of the Toronto sites, said. 

    Others say the sites create a concentration of users.

    "The moment you place a safe injection site in a neighborhood, you create a very visible concentration," resident Nick Culverwell said.

    In Philadelphia, a safe injection site proposed for the Kensington neighborhood has hit political and legal roadblocks.

    What Candidates in Mayoral Race Think

    Mayor Jim Kenney, running for a second term, supports a proposed site in Kensington. He also has said he supports more than one site, eventually:

    "The city would not operate this operation. It would be done by a non-profit. Our role would be to have people there who would have access to social services, addiction services and the like so that we can get people into another space as opposed to under a railroad trestle or down by a railroad line shooting up by themselves and dying."

    State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams does not support safe injection sites in Philadelphia, instead seeking to expand addiction services:

    "We're empathetic and supportive of those in the throes of addiction. Let me be clear about that. But we should be about intervention. We should be about prevention, and aftercare. That means early in life, our young people need to understand what these drugs will do. Two, if you're in the throes of addiction, you should be able to walk into the police department, fire station, library, anyplace and get the City of Philadelphia to say, 'We're going to send you to a place of recovery.'"

    Former City Controller Alan Butkovitz does not support any injection sites in Philadelphia, arguing that the facility's positives are outweighed by the large police presence it would require: 

    "Safe injection sites is an oxymoron. There's no way you can safely inject heroin, particularly fentanyl-contaminated heroin, without killing yourself eventually. And whether or not you physically drop dead in the center or out in the street or back in the bathtub when you're home, doesn't make any difference. What we need to be doing is more beds, more dollars, more outreach, more support for families."

    Little Political Support in Kensington

    Both of the neighborhood's top politicians, Seventh District City Councilwoman María Quiñónes-Sánchez and state Rep. Ángel Cruz, told Telemundo62 recently that they do not support an injection site in the troubled area. 

    Kenney and Rendell, the former governor and Philadelphia mayor, are proponents of putting the city's first injection site in Kensington because of its proximity to the neighborhood's rampant heroin sales.

    Outside of Kensington, the city's federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney William McSwain, is strongly opposed to an injection site anywhere in the city. McSwain in February sued to keep the proposed first site closed.

    "Normalizing the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl is not the answer to solving the epidemic," McSwain said at the time.

    Rendell is a board member of Safehouse, the nonprofit trying to raise $1.8 million to open the Kensington injection site. He has said he's willing to face arrest. He bucked similar regulations when he was Philadelphia mayor in the 1990s, sanctioning the city's first needle exchange program.

    "If I thought for a minute that safe injection sites would create new addicts, I wouldn't be a part of it. I see the ability to save lives and get people who are addicts exposed to treatment," Rendell said last fall.