Gisele Fetterman says we need to embrace safe-injection sites for those afflicted by drug addiction | Pittsburgh City Paper

Gisele Fetterman says we need to embrace safe-injection sites for those afflicted by drug addiction

click to enlarge Gisele Fetterman says we need to embrace safe-injection sites for those afflicted by drug addiction
Photo: iStock
Last week, a proposed supervised injection site for those afflicted by drug addiction was canceled in Philadelphia. The site would have been the first in the nation and would have served as a resource to help the city combat the opioid epidemic, which has the highest opioid-related death rate of any large city in the U.S. About 3,500 lives have been lost to opioid overdoses since 2017 in Philadelphia.

The site would have allowed people, under supervision, to inject illegal drugs. It’s part of a harm-reduction strategy to combat drug addiction, where users are encouraged to use in a safe and supervised location, rather than in public. Advocates have said this can also lead to those afflicted by drug addiction to get sober by using services that are available at the supervised injection sites.

The proposal saw significant community opposition and local elected officials, including Democrats who have advocated for similar harm-reduction techniques to combat the opioid epidemic. And now it’s unclear if Philadelphia will ever get the site.

Pennsylvania Second Lady Gisele Fetterman is disappointed in Philadelphia’s rejection of the site. She says, “We should be trying everything” to combat the opioid epidemic.

“If it is about trying to save lives, then we should be doing things that we know work,” said Fetterman.
Fetterman notes that Pennsylvania as a whole has seen a decrease in overall deaths related to opioid overdose, but says the numbers are still alarming. Allegheny County, for example, experienced 308 drug overdose deaths in 2019, a significant drop from 737 in 2017, but 2019 deaths are still higher than the average overdose death rate from 2008-2014, according to OverdoseFreePa.

Part of the opposition to the safe-injection site in Philadelphia, according to residents, was that neighbors weren’t given adequate time to assess having the site move into South Philadelphia. (However, after the plans were canceled, neighbors continued to protest the idea of a safe injection site moving into South Philadelphia.)

“There is this idea that [it's] ‘not my child, not my problem,’” says Fetterman. “But these are all my children. I would want this in our backyard.”

Fetterman says she would welcome a safe-injection site to Braddock and Harrisburg, where she lives with her three children and husband Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-Braddock).

“I want all our neighbors to thrive,” says Fetterman. “I cannot process the idea of turning our backs on them.”

Switzerland has had safe injection sites for more than 20 years, and there are over 100 such sites worldwide. Even cities in Switzerland, which has seen success at lowering overdose deaths linked to safe-injection sites, still struggles at times to place them in neighborhoods.

Fetterman acknowledges the challenges but says the opioid epidemic is too crucial to not fight for potential fixes like safe-injection sites. She praised Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney for his efforts in trying to bring the site to his city. Other Pittsburgh-area politicians have also advocated for bolder policies to tackle the opioid epidemic.

State Rep. Sara Innamorato (D-Lawrenceville) lost her father to an opioid addiction-related death. On Feb. 26, she tweeted, “Syringe service programs save lives.”
Fetterman is calling on Pennsylvania communities to drop opposition to safe injection sites. She says that Pennnsylvania is the top 10 for overdose death rates in the U.S. and that Pennsylvanians are going to need the courage to help those afflicted with and dying from opioid addiction.

“If we have options and answers and we are not choosing to be courageous, do we really care about these people?” asks Fetterman. “If you only want a program like this to exist far away from you, then don’t you really care about them?”