The Republican Fighting Philadelphia’s Opioid Crisis

Needles used for shooting heroin and other opioids and other drug paraphernalia in a park in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, Pa., in 2017. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)
City-council candidate Pete Smith has had enough.

‘In the past two years, I’ve buried two of my cousins from overdose deaths,” says Pete Smith. “I’m also the grandfather of a young boy who stood there while we buried his mother from an overdose death. The reason I stood next to my grandson is because my son, his father, has been somewhere out in Kensington for the last two years, addicted to heroin.”

Kensington is a section of Philadelphia that the documentary television series Intervention has dubbed the “heroin hub” for the entire East Coast. And Philadelphia has the highest opioid-overdose death rate of any city in the country.

Smith has had enough. He declared his candidacy for city council in February, with one of his main objectives being to tackle Philadelphia’s opioid crisis.

A political newcomer, the GOP candidate is challenging an incumbent who is under federal indictment: Smith’s opponent, Bobby Henon, faces charges of being bribed with a “stream of benefits” including Henon’s union salary and tickets to sporting events with the intent to influence Henon in his capacity as a member of city council.

Yet Smith’s obstacles remain large. “When I had made the decision to run, . . . I still was tentative about it, because of how powerful the electric union was behind him and stories of intimidation I had heard about. However, I felt someone had to step in and take care of the neighborhoods that he has forgotten about,” Smith tells me. “Nothing changes if nothing changes” is his campaign’s slogan.

Smith felt a sense of duty to stand up, and, given what he has endured, he is up to the challenge. “I have been harassed quite often by individuals who are aligned with my opponent, but the overwhelming support I receive far outweighs the negatives,” Smith says.

Philadelphia’s overdose rate is more than three times as high as its homicide rate, and the number of overdose fatalities has increased 143 percent since 2013. Smith demanded accountability in June: “Why do we allow our children to stay high?” he asked before a Council Committee on Public Health and Human Services hearing.

And as the city grapples with the possibility of safe-injection sites, Smith is adamant about working to solve the problem now. While safe-injection sites merit a conversation, they also raise legal issues that will take time — and possibly a skirmish with the federal government — to resolve.

Smith believes that a major priority for the city should be to help users detox; he argues that “medicated-assisted treatment programs cannot be successful without proper detoxification.” This could be a step in the right direction: A study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that “a significant portion of individuals who are addicted to opioid painkillers may initiate and maintain abstinence with a brief but intensive outpatient detoxification treatment followed by opioid-antagonist therapy using naltrexone.”

Given the severity of the crisis, it is abundantly clear that some kind of action is needed, and needed now. The current conventions are leaving Philadelphians vulnerable. Tired of the bureaucracy, Smith has offered solutions that would begin to help immediately. Hopefully, he can overcome bureaucratic politics and city corruption before there are many, many more deaths.

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