Another mayor, another effort to “clean up” Kensington. Except this time, the new mayor, Cherelle Parker, wasted no time putting her plans for the area in place.
Parker, one of many Democratic Party opponents to progressive approaches to the drug problem, has embraced the “war on drugs,” amped-up law enforcement “approach” to addiction. Parker claims she wants to use a “research-based” approach but has reverted to relying on increased policing instead.
For decades, Kensington, a neighborhood northeast of Center City Philadelphia, has been known in the city and beyond, as an open-air drug market. Most drugs are easily available there, including heroin, fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. Previous city officials have not been able to reduce drug use, no matter how much they said they wanted to.
Decades of drug epidemics
This opioid epidemic is not the first or only drug epidemic the U.S. and Philadelphia have experienced. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was heroin and barbiturates; in the 1980s and 1990s, cocaine and crack cocaine; and in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a third resurgence of heroin use along with crystal methamphetamines.
From the 2000s up to now, opiates and benzodiazepines have been most prevalent. But we know from repeated experiences that law enforcement has no clue how to stop open-air drug markets or bring drug use to a full stop.
Despite the historical failures of law enforcement’s efforts to fight the drug problem in the United States in general and Philadelphia in particular, that hasn’t stopped politicians from rallying behind cops to harass homeless and addicted people. Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, who represents areas of Kensington, has supported using police to destroy homeless encampments and arrest drug users. Parker’s plan also includes summoning the National Guard, a proposal that would fail and only worsen things for everyone involved.
Lozada and Parker would use law enforcement as a bludgeon to force people to stop using drugs, and that has never worked. For all of Parker’s predecessor’s flaws, at least former Mayor Jim Kenney recognized the futility of using police against addiction and instead supported the harm reductionist approach to drug use: safe consumption sites and increasing access to opioid dependence treatments like buprenorphine and methadone.
While Parker resigned from the Philadelphia City Council in December 2022 to run for mayor, she supported the September 2023 vote by the City Council vetoing Kenney’s proposal to allow a safe injection site to open in the city.
Lozada — a favorite among both the “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) forces aligned against safe consumption sites and medication-assisted treatment centers and the people who view addicts as mere criminals — has overtly and emphatically rejected the progressive approach to drug addiction.
In Parker’s first statement as mayor, she said: “If somebody tells you that ‘we think she lacks compassion because she wants to be too aggressive in cleaning up the open-air drug market,’ you tell them to think about whether they would want their mother, father, sister, brother on the street openly using intravenous drugs.”
Poverty, untreated mental illness behind drug abuse
The proper response to that emotional manipulation is that “we would not want our loved ones being harassed by the police and the government for using drugs, for doing something in response to capitalist oppression or for untreated mental illness and poverty.” Parker, Lozada, the NIMBYs and their allies will not tell you that.
They’ll say they want to force addicts into treatment. But that treatment will not work if the addict’s needs and root causes of addiction are not addressed. And capitalism does not have the means to do that.
Safe consumption sites, however, which admittedly may not address root causes, will help users stay alive until they feel they can stop using or enter treatment of their own volition. Where they have been established, as for example in New York City and Toronto, Canada, safe injection sites that use evidence-based treatment, such as providing untainted drugs to users, have reduced drug-related deaths.
How socialist China dealt with drug addiction
During the reign of the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911), Western imperialist countries introduced opium into China while forcing China to cede territory, including Hong Kong, to British control. Even after the Qing Dynasty fell and the first provisional, pre-revolutionary Republic of China was in place, China had a horrible drug problem. There were more people addicted to drugs in China than there have been in the United States.
After the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong and the Chinese proletariat and peasantry rose to power and created the People’s Republic of China in 1949, they developed a plan to address the problems of opium addiction.
Before the revolution, addiction was seen as a shameful thing — not too different from the United States today — but the revolutionaries made it a prideful thing for addicts to have the strength to admit they had a problem. They held rallies and celebrations for people coming forward seeking help.
Those addicts who needed help were immersed in their communities, asked to do service work and given medications and help to get through withdrawals relatively simply. While the people on drugs were getting help, the revolutionary police were eliminating sources of opium.
The Communist Party and the people realized that many dealers pushing drugs needed the resources to survive. They addressed this by offering to buy (and destroy) their supply and give them full market value for those drugs. Many dealers took this option and reinvented themselves as helpful members of the community. Those who didn’t and attempted to reignite the addiction problem were imprisoned until they reformed.
June 3, 1951, was declared “Opium Suppression Day,” a wonderful testament to the power of the working class, peasantry and revolution in ending the drug scourge.
But why did people use drugs to begin with? Aside from the Western imperialists forcing opium on the Chinese people, there were other reasons not so different from why people in Kensington and elsewhere in the U.S. use drugs today. The two biggest factors were unhappiness with life under the Qing Dynasty and then under the capitalist Republic of China.
People needed money, land and food. It might have been counterproductive to spend what little money they had on drugs instead of on food, but drugs provided an escape from hunger and a hard life. A second reason people in pre-revolutionary China used drugs was untreated mental illness.
Even in the capitalist and imperialist West, there was no means of dealing with mental illness. The first antipsychotics and antidepressants wouldn’t be invented until later. So, they did what they thought would help: they would use drugs to escape their conditions.
This is what exists now in Kensington and other drug market areas. People are in deep need of food, money and mental and physical health care. But for impoverished people, the lack of a permanent address makes it harder to apply for public assistance programs like Medicaid, food stamps and disability/supplemental security income.
Better use for ‘War on Drugs’ money
What were the unintended consequences of the “War on Drugs?”
Since the inception of the War on Drugs in June 1971, the U.S. has spent over $1 trillion with little measurable benefits to drug users or their communities. The enforcement of punitive laws for drug offenses led to increased policing of primarily Black and Brown communities, overloading of the so-called “criminal justice system” and major overcrowding of jails and prisons.
Had War on Drugs funding been put into assistance programs, it could have increased the number of treatment beds, access to methadone and buprenorphine and availability of more public housing options. Decriminalizing drug use might have eliminated the policy that made using drugs an offense that would get a person kicked out of or denied access to public housing.
For those surviving by selling drugs, the U.S. could implement the same program that China did: Buy — and destroy — the drug supplies they possess and help dealers get good-paying jobs so that they won’t need to sell drugs. The government also needs to expand access to needle exchange programs, establish safe consumption sites in high drug-using neighborhoods and provide a safe, untainted supply of drugs to people who use them until they’re ready to get clean.
The efforts by Lozada and Parker to increase and amplify the War on Drugs will fail. They have always failed. All they do is push drug use to other neighborhoods until drug users return to Kensington. This writer has seen that happen before.
The only way to approach this problem is to apply progressive, revolutionary tactics. That said, a revolution is needed now to stop the drug problem. Revolutionaries, addicts in recovery or still using and the proletariat as a whole need to fight for the socialist society we need in order to save still-using people.
Reject War on Drugs rhetoric and see the humanity and need for care for addicts. That’s how we stop the problem.