Decarcerating America: From Mass Punishment to Public Health

grygielny Drug Education, Uncategorized

For several decades the United States has relied on mass incarceration as a tool for criminal justice, mental health treatment, and economic stimulus. The result is a prison population that dwarfs that of any other developed country yet has shown no corresponding positive benefits in crime deterrence, mental health, or economic benefits. The prison industrial complex has wasted billions of dollars and destroyed millions of lives. Decarcerating America, a series of essays edited by Ernest Drucker, is an admirably comprehensive and insightful attempt to address this problem.

Decarcerating America approaches the problem of mass incarceration from a variety of perspectives. Contributors include public health professionals, professors, policy advocates, and researchers. That more than one writer featured was a prison inmate is a testament to the book’s approach to prison reform: listening to the voices of the currently and formerly incarcerated and taking what they say seriously.

The solutions proposed throughout Decarcerating America are serious and aggressive; Drucker opens the book by stating that the goal of decarceration is cutting the prison population of the United States in half. Not surprisingly, drug policy reform is discussed in depth absolutely crucial to any decarceration strategy. Gabriel Sayegh, founder of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, argues compellingly in favor decriminalization of all drugs.

The five authors of an essay on post-incarceration harm reduction lay out the evidence against strict abstinence-based rehabilitation programs, which often do more harm than good. By punishing addicted individuals for relapses that are a part of the recovery process, these mandated programs only serve to punish people, rather than help them. The authors propose a more personal, tailored approach to helping drug addicted individuals take control of their lives.

Several of the writers point out that many prison reform proposals focus exclusively on non-violent offenders, especially those convicted of drug crimes. Not only would this fall well short of the goal of a 50 percent reduction, but it dehumanizes those convicted of violent crimes, who tend to have been the victims of violence themselves, and who often suffer with drug addiction and mental illness. Drastic reform in sentence length for all crimes, and a more effective parole system, are essential to real progress.

In particular, parole decisions made based on risk calculation, not the seriousness of the crime committed, would be far more fair, effective, and humane. Mujahid Farid, of the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign, points out that the recidivism rate for people over fifty when they are released from New York prisons is one eighth that of the overall rate, a fact that is not taken into account by parole boards. Releasing almost all of those prisoners would drastically reduce prison spending without risking a rise in crime.

If the goal of prison is rehabilitation, prisoners must be given a voice in how they are treated and how prisons can most effectively prepare them for their next steps. Humane treatment of prisoners will make an enormous difference. Elizabeth Gaynes and Tanya Krupat, of The Osborne Association, explore the impact that prison sentences have on the children of the incarcerated. Sending people to prisons hundreds of miles from home and not allowing in-person visits from family increases recidivism rates and has serious, long-term consequences on the mental health of children unable to see their parents.

Who is benefiting from this system? In the last essay of the book, author and activist Eric Lotke looks at the local economic incentives for prisons. Prisons seem to be appealing investments for small towns in rural areas, since they provide steady jobs for local citizens. However, because they do not attract other investments, and can even dissuade other companies from moving to those towns, soon the town becomes entirely reliant on the prison and is loath to let it close.

Decarcerating America is a fascinating and enlightening read for anyone who believes that the prison industrial complex needs to be dismantled. And it offers hope. Multiple contributors contend that while the Trump Administration and its “law and order” approach to crime is deeply troubling, progress can still be made at the local, state, and even federal level. By instituting policies that are proven to be effective and incorporate the voices of incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated individuals, the massive American prison system, and the damage it does, could one day be a thing of the past.

A Review by Tom Houseman

Mental Illness, Poverty, and Addiction Are Not Crimes

grygielny Diversion

Surely no reasonable person would assert that mental illness, poverty, and addiction are crimes, or that anyone should be sent to prison for being poor or afflicted with mental illness or addiction. But what should society do when those who, driven by their afflictions, repeatedly break the law?

In 1971, President Richard Nixon gave us two potentially contradictory answers. He declared a War on Drugs—which President Ronald Reagan later intensified with relentless and mindless cruelty—that created militarized police forces and empowered them to arrest low-level drug users, mostly from poor, minority neighborhoods. Almost simultaneously Nixon created a program called Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime (TASC) to divert drug-involved offenders to treatment.

In each program, it is the police who determine who goes to jail or who gets treatment, an authorization that this should give us pause. Police often handle a difficult job well. But for the most part they have not been trained in helping the afflicted, nor do they have the incentive to do so. Their rewards come from making arrests. “Law and order” and what might be called diversion, therefore, do not easily co-exist.

While TASC programs have had occasional success, it is the War on Drugs that has dominated the national landscape, with tragic consequences: ruined lives, discriminatory law enforcement policies, and over one trillion dollars of national treasure squandered. In the last few years, however, this imbalance has begun to shift.

The primary reason for this evolution is the opioid crisis, now a national epidemic, which claims over 65,000 overdose deaths annually. In the spring of 2015, the police chief in Gloucester, Massachusetts, stunned by five overdose deaths in five months in his town of 30,000, promised on Facebook that if addicts came to his office and turned in their drug paraphernalia, he would not arrest them but would instead help them locate treatment. The post went viral, and other police chiefs began to make the same offer.

Together they formed the Police-Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative (PAARI), which has grown to over 360 police chiefs nationwide. In 2017 they convened in Washington DC and decided to build a movement, broadening their base under the rubric Police, Treatment, and Community (PTAC). This larger collaborative, in turn, has just held the PTAC National Pre-Arrest Diversion Inaugural Conference.

Jac Charlier, PTAC Co-founder

This collaboration enjoys creative and energetic leadership. One of the key organizers is a happy warrior named Jac Charlier, a nationally recognized expert in pre-arrest diversion who serves as National Director for Justice Initiatives at Illinois TASC. His enthusiasm was palpable as he opened the conference, declaring that for “the first time in the United States, all of us have realized that there is a newly emerging field and profession in the United States called pre-arrest diversion.”

The numbers bear him out. PAARI’s executive director estimates that over 500 police chiefs are practicing diversion nationwide. Over 175 participants from communities across the country joined PTAC’s 26 founding organizations at the conference.

Charlier has a compelling vision: “In three to five years, we will see the profession develop and we’ll start seeing job postings for pre-arrest diversion manager or counselor, just like the re-entry movement and how that started.” I believe this can happen, and that society will benefit when it does.

We have come a long way in the last three years, when in this newsletter we described a police chief in Mundelein named Eric Guenther who was beginning to follow the Gloucester model by helping to find treatment for addicts that came to his police station. At that time I could not have imagined the scale of the response from police chiefs across the country, and the kind of vitality and commitment we saw at the first annual Police, Treatment, and Community conference. In this season that represents hope in difficult times, a ray of hope—indeed, of fundamental humanity—is more than welcome. It is an Easter blessing.

Reverend Alexander Sharp 

Five Forms of Diversion

grygielny Diversion

At the recent Inaugural Pre-Trial Diversion Conference of Police, Treatment and Community in Florida, I (Al Sharp) was privileged to hear presentations on five forms of diversion for non-violent drug offenders away from the prison industrial complex and into treatment and support programs. Below, we offer descriptions of these programs, excerpted from the presenters at the conference. Statements have been edited for length.

Self Referral
In this model, the individual initiates contact with law enforcement to seek a treatment referral, without fear of arrest. Allie McDade, Executive Director of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative in Gloucester, Massachusetts, presented about the program.

The Gloucester Angel program was started in June 2015 after a series of overdose deaths in that community. Gloucester is a small fishing community about an hour north of Boston, so one overdose death per month was a lot for them. The police departments decided to do something different.

The idea was that they would open the doors of the police station and anybody who wanted to come in, 24 hours a day, could just walk into the station and ask for help and they would figure out how to get you into treatment. It didn’t matter where you lived, whether or not you had insurance, what your drug of choice was. The goal was to prevent overdose deaths. The self-referral pathway, as the name suggests, is for people who are ready for treatment. It’s reaching people outside of the criminal justice system before any violation occurs.

Anybody can walk in and ask for a direct referral. Some of the programs, including Gloucester’s, are going to address the barriers to treatment and create linkages, for example, between detox and a longer-term care and advocate. We also do a lot of reentry support, so once someone returns to the community after treatment, we help them get connected to housing and employment.

This pathway—and all the other pathways really—would not work without collaboration. Obviously, as a department, you need [a program] to refer someone to, and you need to be familiar with all the different recovery support services in your community. So, collaboration and linkages are very, very important to this pathway.

Active Outreach
In this approach, law enforcement identifies individuals and hands them off to a treatment provider. John Tharp, Sheriff of Lucas County, Ohio, described the program and its origins.

In 1973, my partner and I responded to a call. When we arrived, there were three people dead from overdose in an apartment. We made out a half-page report and contacted the coroner, who came and got the bodies, and that’s all we did… .We were thinking, “We should be doing more.”

So we decided that when we got calls for an overdose we would take those individuals straight to detox when they were released from the hospital. We called Ohio Attorney General DeWine and explained the situation to him, and he brought us $800,000 to pay for more officers and for detox beds.

Since the inception of the unit, we have responded to over 2,600 overdoses, so we’re averaging right around 79% success of getting people into detox beds and getting people to agree to go to detox beds.

It’s very, very tough to respond and get people to go with us, because first of all, they’re afraid of cops. They just overdosed, and the last person they want to see is law enforcement. So, we talk them into going to detox with us, and they will do so.

We actually deputized park rangers and brought them in. We have certified peace officers who work security in public libraries, and we deputize them. We now have 17 officers who are aggressive and responding.

We know that relapse is part of recovery. They relapse. Once they’ve relapsed, we don’t wash our hands of them. We continue to go back and work with them.

Naloxone Plus
This option involves engagement with treatment as part of a response to an overdose or a severe substance use disorder at acute risk for opioid overdose. Tom Fallon, Commander, Amberley Village Police Department, Hamilton County, Ohio; Dan Meloy, Director of Public Safety, Colerain County, Ohio; and Kelly Firesheets, Coordinator, Interact for Health’s Preventing Opioid Misuse and Safety Network described their communities’ applications of this approach to addiction.’

Meloy: I was talking to people in recovery: “What if we showed up at your door after you overdosed? What would you say?” And the young man happened to be a firefighter. He had fallen off a roof in the line of duty, had surgery, was prescribed Percocet, and addiction followed, then crime; he was facing prison and got probation. He just looked at me and he cried…. “Why would police and fire care? I’ve overdosed so many times. I turned into a criminal. Why would police and fire care about me?”

I sat down with the CEO of the Greater Cincinnati Addiction Services Council and laid out the model: “We have the information; we’re going to go out and proactively find them. What do you think?” The CEO looked at me: “It’s going to work. I’ve been doing street-level social work for over 30 years. You’re breaking down barriers by being there.”

Fallon: You have to locate the victim, which a lot of times is very difficult. These people are nomadic. You knock on the door, you get them, and you turn them over, and you just say, “How can I help you?” Our role is to locate the victim and turn them over to the behavioral health people. They figure out the best place to place them, whether in intense outpatient or detox, or whatever they need.

What we see is a collaboration between first responders, usually police, fire, EMS in some shape, form, or fashion and then public health and treatment. More and more, we’re integrating peer recovery coaches and peer recovery counselors, which is a fantastic addition to the work.

Firesheets: These naloxone-plus interventions literally are the bridges in that huge systems gap between the sidewalk where people are dropping and the treatment facilities. So, we’re building those bridges to get people across the gaps.

Officer Intervention
Law Enforcement initiatives treatment: charges are held in abeyance or citations issued. Greg Frost, President of the Civil Citation Network of Tallahassee, Florida, described this approach.

Basically, we are casting a very broad net for individuals who’ve never been arrested before. It’s their first contact with law enforcement or one of the first where they are a suspect in committing a certain eligible misdemeanor.

Be honest with yourselves. Look back on your life. How many of you, besides me, have done something in your past for which you could have been arrested? Raise your hand. Okay. Now, look around at who didn’t raise their hand. You’ve got it. You’ve got it. It’s us, folks. It’s us. People make mistakes. It’s you and me on a bad day. It’s the person who is a lawyer, a doctor, a student at Florida State University, and they make a mistake, and they end up breaking the law.

Every year in Florida, 65,000 people are arrested for the first time on misdemeanor charge. There are serious consequences to that arrest. There hasn’t been a lot of research done on that first-time, low-level, nonviolent misdemeanor offender, because there’s been kind of a, “Yeah, okay, that’s not a big deal.” Well, it is a big deal. And it’s costing us all a lot of money.

We’ve got three large schools, colleges, in Tallahassee. These kids are losing their federal funding because they were 20 years old and got caught with a can of beer in their hand. They’re losing their student loans, having to drop out of school. Access to some housing programs. Negative impact on child custody.

If you lose your job, what’s the impact on some of the minority communities where you have such a high arrest rate? Entire neighborhoods are being destabilized economically, just because the criminal justice system doesn’t provide law enforcement officers with that curve tool.

Here’s the basic process: You have a misdemeanor and a call for service. An officer responds. Let’s just say it’s two guys in a bar and they’re arguing over the tab and somebody pushes the other guy. There’s probable cause.

Rather than arresting the person, the officer can issue a civil citation. The person doesn’t have to take it. They can say, “No, I have my constitutional right, I want to go stand before a judge.”

If they choose the civil citation, then for the next 72 hours, they report into a behavioral health agency. They have a full biopsychosocial assessment, there’s a drug screening, and then from there, there’s an individualized intervention behavioral health plan put together to address their specific issues.

If the person is successful, then they’ll have counseling, they’ll have additional drug screenings, they will go through some educational modules, they’ll have their community service hours. So once they complete all of those successfully, then there is no arrest record.

I’ve talked to a lot of chiefs and sheriffs who have said, “Wait a minute now, this is soft on crime.” No, it’s not. They’re going to have community service hours, they’re going to pay a fee for their behavioral health services. It’ll be basically the same as if they went through the criminal justice system. So a person is being held accountable, one way or the other.

We’ve got approximately an 84% success rate. Those that go into the program, 84% of them successfully complete the program.

Officer Prevention
In this approach, law enforcement initiates treatment as part of an enforcement action, and no charges are filed. Kris Nyrop, LEAD National Support Director; Co-founder, first LEAD project, Seattle, and Brendan Cox, Director of Policing Strategies at the LEAD National Support Bureau; and Chief (ret.) Albany, NY Police Department, described this approach.

Nyrop: LEAD grew out of incredibly contentious, over-a-decade-long debate that was played out in court, in civil litigation, over massive racial disparity in black arrests. So in a city [Seattle] where 8% of the population was African-American, about 60% of those who were being arrested for drug possession and sales were black. And it was not in response to opioids; the emphasis here was on crack. This was the motivation behind LEAD.

What we’re seeing in other cities is that the motivation is quite different. But the common theme in all of the places that have adopted LEAD so far, is that the status quo around behavioral health conditions is absolutely broken. Police are routinely coming in contact with individuals with behavioral health conditions, either substance abuse or mental health. Or poverty, in some cases. And the only choice the police have at that moment is to arrest that person. That’s the handcuff that the police are in, that the option they’re given is either to ignore what’s going on or to arrest the individual.

So, LEAD was designed to give officers a third option. LEAD exists in both pre-arrest and post-arrest formats. It can be adapted to local situations. Some areas are doing only pre-arrest diversion, others are doing it only post-arrest. Many areas are doing both.

The range of offenses that are eligible for LEAD also varies by jurisdiction. For example, in Seattle, the driver of racial disparity in drug arrests was really around drug sales. So for us it was absolutely critical that drug sales be a divertible offense.

When we first started, our initial eligibility criterion was possession or sales of up to three grams of drugs. That was a big leap for the Seattle Police Department to make. Since then, after six years of successful operation, they’re willing to include a much wider range of offenses. We’re now up to possession or sales of seven grams. Basically, drug possession arrests have ceased in Seattle as a result of doing LEAD.

Cox: There are people who need to be in jail or in prison. We know that. Somebody kills somebody, somebody hurts somebody, they need to be there. But if somebody’s got a substance use issue or somebody’s mentally ill, or they’re living in poverty and they have to steal to support and make sure their kids are fed, those folks shouldn’t be in jail. We need to start ending mass incarceration and recognizing that there is a huge racial disparity everywhere we go.

With LEAD we have a third pathway. We can divert. If somebody has committed a crime and we’re going to divert them, that crime is only going to be held over their head until they do an assessment. That’s it. They may commit another crime and we’ll deal with that. But at that point, they’re free of that charge.

We recognize that change takes time, lots of time. We don’t have a graduation date [for our program] because we know that people are going to have really high points and people are going to have really low points.

We build a team that really looks after individuals. They work closely together. We’re also about changing culture. One of our goals is to create better relationships between the community and the police. We can build great partnerships between community and police, and we’ll increase trust, we’ll increase legitimacy, we’ll increase the fact that we’re working together on something.

Impact and Results

Several of the speakers offered indicators of success. Allie McDade of PAARI, cited a New England Journal of Medicine article with data showing that the police referral rate to treatment is nearly 95% compared to a hospital rate of about 50%. Chief Tharp, for example, noted that his team has responded to over 2,600 overdoses and is averaging close to 80% in placement in detox beds. Preliminary results for the Civil Citation Network indicate that about 85% of those referred to treatment or counseling complete the program with a 7% re-arrest rate.

Benefits of diversion programs extend beyond the impact on those served directly. Krip Nyop of LEAD, for example, commented on what happened when Seattle created supportive housing for chronic late-stage alcoholics: “the building paid for itself in reduced emergency room admissions. But the more important thing was the public safety benefit that happened from having these people off the street. You could just feel it in downtown Seattle. You could see the difference and you could feel it.”

Fighting for Space: A Story of Perseverance

grygielny Guest Pieces, Opinion

A Review By Dr. Mary Nelson

We are in the midst of an opioid crisis. In 2016 there were an estimated 64,000 fatal drug overdoses across the US. Our response has been inadequate and unsuccessful, but the work of activists in Vancouver provides paths for action. Travis Lupick tells the stories of those who paved that path, interspersed with insights into the effort to replicate that model in the US, in his book Fighting for Space. In 2016, I was able to visit the pioneering Vancouver treatment program, Insite, and to meet the people involved. I can attest to the power of a more humane and life-giving approach.  

Lupick offers a moving introduction to harm reduction and describes how it can be a model for the US. “Our government and police have waged war on people that use drugs,” says Lupick, resulting in bloated prisons and rising death rates. He depicts the effort to find a better way in Vancouver over the period 1990-2014 through the eyes of service providers who came to understand that criminalization and abstinence don’t work for many struggling with addiction, and that new approaches need to be tried.

One of these health workers was a nurse, Liz Evans, who left a hospital job focused on the immediate medical needs of addicts to manage a last-resort housing complex, the Portland Hotel.  Under Evans’ leadership, the Portland accepted drug addicts and mentally ill people as they were, asking, “How can we help?” The result was a hectic but caring “community” of residents.  Other staff brought their own strengths and perspectives to this work. Mark Townsend identified creative ways to convince politicians to increase funding for alternative approaches to drug treatment. Organizer Ann Livingston, committed to engaging addicts themselves in shaping and advocating for their own solutions, facilitated their involvement in designing a more effective and humane response to addiction.    

Frustrated by the indifference of politicians, and society more broadly, to the HIV/AIDS crisis  and escalating deaths in Vancouver’s downtown, an organization of drug users took shape, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, or VANDU.  They began with a demonstration in a major downtown park, where activists and addicts bore 1,000 crosses inscribed with the names of victims of drug overdose, and a large sign reading, “KILLING FIELDS.”  A year later the network organized an international conference in the same park, with speakers from Europe who ran safe drug injection sites and other humane efforts sharing their experience, expertise, and validation.  Their testimony opened the eyes of some government and medical officials and created the opportunity to push for harm reduction approaches in Vancouver.

Lupick describes harm reduction as “strategies all about keeping people alive and as healthy as possible until they can arrive at a place in life where treatment or abstinence works for them.”   Drug users who lived in the Portland Hotel could shoot up in their rooms, and staff became equipped to deal with overdoses.  But many users were still on the streets and in dark alleys, and too many were dying.  Several times temporary injection sites popped up only to be kicked out by landlords.

Slowly, HIV/AIDS activists, enlightened health care practitioners, police, and politicians frustrated by the failing status quo came together around a four-pronged approach to addiction:  prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction.  

Finally in 2003 a single drug injection site was approved as a 3-year pilot to test the harm-reduction approach. It provided a safe space where people who bought their drugs outside were welcomed, provided with water and sterile equipment, and supervised by a medical professional in case of overdose.  A second room provided post-injection “cooling spaces,” and a friendly community coffee pot humanized the place.  Statistics showed a significant reduction in deaths from overdose and HIV/AIDS. This safe haven also opened the door for connections to other forms of health assistance and care. Research on Insite  validated anecdotal findings of significantly reduced deaths from overdose, people moving into more stable living situations, and healthier action.  These findings have been documented and published in countless journals.

Insite and its housing components (Portland Hotel, etc) are still operating today, but expansion has been glacial. Lupick recounts how opposition from downtown business associations and, city officials have threatened the pilot model.  VANDU and its allies continued to organize for decriminalization of drug possession, harm reduction efforts, and legal drug injection sites.  Aided by lawyers, a court case went to the Supreme Court, which rendered a narrow decision that applied only to the existing drug injection site. The struggle continues, but there is hope, and lives are being saved in the process.

What can we learn from the Vancouver experience?  It takes the selfless commitment and compassion of pioneers like Liz Evans. It takes creative efforts to raise awareness and destigmatize drug use in the minds of politicians and voters.  It takes outreach to allies, including HIV/AIDS advocates, public health advocates, communities of faith, families of drug users, and politicians.  It takes involving drug users in organizing and action, both for better results and to empower them to take charge of their lives. It takes persistence and resilience for the long journey with small successes along the way.  

As people of faith, we know all are created in the image of God, including drug users.  God calls us to work for justice for all God’s people.  God gives us infinite hope that sustains us in the struggle for a more humane and life-giving approach to drug addiction.

Mary Nelson was the founding President and CEO of Bethel New Life, a faith-based development corporation on Chicago’s West Side.  Over 45 years in that community and 27 years in that role, she brought a perspective of faith and hope to a community many considered beyond redemption. Nelson holds a doctorate from Union Graduate School and has taught asset-based community development to pastors and community leaders. In April 2016, she visited Insite as part of a pastoral delegation organized by Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

Progress in Preventing Drug Deaths: A Philadelphia Story

Tom Houseman Marijuana Legalization

 By Tom Houseman

You might be surprised to learn that the most dangerous aspects of heroin use have little to do with the drug itself. Heroin injection’s dangers are largely driven by the risk of overdose (especially if the user is unsure of the potency of the particular dose being taken) and the use of dirty needles leading to infections, HIV, and Hepatitis C. Harm reduction is a strategy to reduce those risks, ensuring that substance use disorder is not a death sentence, and that someone who uses drugs gets the support they need to receive the treatment that is right for them. It is easy to shame and condemn a drug addict, but if we want to help them live, instead of just letting them die, we need to do more.

Providing a facility in which people can safely inject under supervision of a medical professional would drastically reduce these risks and save lives, but currently no such facility exists in the United States. You can read about North America’s first safe injection site, Insite, in our review of the book Fighting for Space. Insite staff have overdosed thousands of drug overdoses, and not a single death has occurred. In addition, when heroin users have access to a safe injection facility, rates of HIV and Hepatitis C go down, as do the number of publicly discarded needles.

Such a facility would have an enormously positive impact in the United States, yet those who think that these facilities incentivize drug use (they don’t) have ensured that none exist. As a result, those who inject drugs are forced to reuse needles, inject with dirty water, and rush their injection to avoid being caught and arrested. Instead of trying to help those with substance use disorders, too many are only looking for a way to ignore drug users or punish them.

Sheetz, a chain of convenience stores in and around Pennsylvania, recently announced that, in an attempt to drive away drug users, they will be replacing all of the lights in their bathrooms with blue bulbs. Because veins are more difficult to locate under blue light, the injection process is harder and more dangerous. While it makes sense that a business would not want illegal activity to take place on its premises, this decision shows how desperately safe injection sites are needed in areas with high rates of heroin use. Overdose deaths in Pennsylvania increased by 37 percent in 2016 to a rate of nearly thirteen deaths per day. In addition, 1,170 people were diagnosed with HIV in Pennsylvania in 2015, and rates of Hepatitis C infections increased by 233 percent.

Fortunately, progress is finally being made. On January 23rd, city officials in Philadelphia announced their support for the creation of a safe injection site within the city, the first step in what will likely be a long and legally complicated process. With one of the most liberal District Attorneys in the country, and a police commissioner who was once “adamantly against” such a site but who allowed the evidence to sway him, Philadelphia could be the one of the first cities in the country to open a safe injection site. San Francisco has plans to open a facility in July, while plans are also being discussed in Denver, Seattle, Baltimore, and New York City.

One would hope that the religious communities in Philadelphia would support such an act of compassion and charity, seeing it as a way to support members of their community who are struggling with substance abuse. Yet one week after the safe injection site proposal received the approval of city officials, an opinion piece by Gina Christian for the website Catholic Philly rejected the notion of such charity, calling it “a new low” for the city’s efforts to help addicts, and writing that “God would appear to disagree” with harm reduction measures. Armed with inaccurate data and a quote from Catechism of the Catholic Church 2291 on the grave sin of drug use, Ms. Christian says that the real solution to the plight of heroin addicts is to “put the needle down now – forever.”

This attitude, in addition to showing a complete misunderstanding of how challenging it can be to struggle with addiction, seems to have little in common with a Christ figure who “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Harm reduction techniques, including safe injection sites, are a way to meet addicts at the place in their addiction where they are, rather than forcing them to adhere to unrealistically strict rules before we offer them help. Instead of seeing addiction as “a deal with the devil,” as Miss Christian does, doesn’t it make more sense to see it as a disease, and to offer those stricken with it any help that we can?