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City Launches Task Force to Curb Opioid Crisis

By Max Marin

Jose Benitez was a quiet, understated presence in the conference room.

Public health officials kept mentioning him by name, or at least his employer’s name. Prevention Point, the multi-service nonprofit for drugs addicts that Benitez directs in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, has been on the frontlines of the drug war for years. The organization was also one the catalysts behind a Wednesday morning meeting, in which Mayor Jim Kenney launched the first interagency task force to combat Philadelphia’s opioid crisis.

Over the next three months, the task force will convene bi-monthly, and subcommittees will meet during the weeks in between. This first session, as Kenney noted, was intended to jumpstart best ideas and practices, which will be refined with more rigor down the line.

“We are embarking on a comprehensive public and private approach…because frankly, failure is no longer an option,” Kenney said.

In a presentation to the task force, Dr. Jeffrey Hom from the City’s Department of Public Health used data to paint a portrait of heroin’s increasing stronghold.

While toxicology reports are still pending at the medical examiner’s office, Philadelphia saw about 900 deaths from drug overdoses in 2016 – over 200 more than it had the year prior.

Eighty percent of them were caused by opioids like heroin and fentanyl and Hom warned that this is just the tip of the iceberg. By Public Health estimations, there are now about 55,000 heroin users in the city, thousands of whom have experienced non-fatal overdoses.

Were it not for naloxone, the anti-overdose medication administered daily by drug users and public safety officials, fatalities could easily rest in the thousands. Last year, 9,700 naloxone canisters were distributed by Philadelphia’s first responders, police officers, and Prevention Point.

Local public health experts and other stakeholders weighed in on ideas for the task force’s discussions going forward. Among those ideas: addressing the prohibitive cost of naloxone, targeting the supply end of the drug trade, increasing treatment service centers (currently, about 6,000 people are receiving treatment for heroin abuse in Philadelphia, Hom said), and increasing education about opioid abuse.

Devin A. Reaves, the founder of the Brotherly Love House, the sober-living recovery center, was among those to dive into those uncomfortable realities. He encouraged the task force to discuss the racial dynamics of addiction treatment.

“I know it’s scary to talk about race, but that’s a fact,” Reeves said. “Black people are disenfranchised when it comes to drug policy in America. During the crack epidemic in the 1980s, we were treated like animals. Now that it’s white people [with heroin], it’s like, oh, he’s just a lost kid, he’s made some mistakes, let’s get him some help. That really needs to be addressed, because any policies that aren’t social-justice based in nature are only going to continue to further the stigma.”

Reeves also suggested the task force look at a safe injection facility. The idea is still considered political suicide in many major U.S. cities. But as Reeves noted, such facilities have been linked with reduced overdose fatalities in Canada. In 2015, the first legal-safe injection site in Vancouver saw 768 overdoses, but not one death. Studies also showed that users at the site were 30 percent more likely to access detox services than those who were shooting up illegally outside the center.

But as Benitez knows all too well, such harm reduction practices can be seen as political suicide. Still, given the strain the epidemic is taking on many within the city, his only suggestion for the task force was to get comfortable outside their comfort zones.