I recently read a commentary by someone who urged us to stop using the word “addict,” because it somehow stigmatizes drug users. We were told not to talk about injection sites, because these city-sanctioned alternatives to the street are not just for heroin users. We were asked to limit the use of needle images, because research shows that they trigger a bad reaction in substance abuse sufferers.
The essay was well-intentioned, as most are. But after reading it, I got the distinct impression that I was lost in a passage from Lewis Carroll.
I do not want my city to become Wonderland, a place where we change the facts to suit our own perception of what “should be.” The express train toward normalization of drug use left the station years ago, and is now heading full throttle toward a place where it is heartless to deny a user clean, well-lit facilities in which to get high. We are urged to look at substance abuse as a disease, not an act of volition or even a crime, and exploit the normal human reservoir of compassion to create dangerous situations for everyone who isn’t sticking needles in their arms.
I’ve lost close family and friends to drugs, both legal and illicit, and I am aware that some people are hard-wired to become addicted to a drug on the first try, while others continue to partake of their preferred substance because it makes them feel good and not because they have a biological mandate. I do not need to walk the streets of North Philadelphia to know what it is to feel the pull of the “dragon.” The word “addict” is not a one size fits all label that denotes in neon lights “victim.”
My father was dying from cancer in 1982. He was offered morphine in the final months, and realized that in exchange for that surcease of pain, he was losing himself in a haze of oblivion. This was a man with a mind that snapped and pulsed and fired with energy and intelligence, someone who is to this day remembered as the greatest litigator of his generation. He did not want to lose that thing that made him unique, and human. And so he deliberately limited the amount of morphine they wanted to give him, trading increased pain for clarity. I cannot blame others for making a different choice, but my father is an example that choices are possible.
And that is why I am tired of the victim narrative, which has led us to this place where we are about to hoist this monstrous alternative upon our city. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell talks about how great the clean needle exchange was to stem the spread of AIDS and other diseases. That is not what Philadelphia is considering. Here, we are instead talking about letting people shoot up in public, and providing them with a comfortable area in which to do so. Heck, we’ve even decided to equip the sites with drugs that will bring the users back to life in cases of overdose. How kind, to give them an opportunity to live to OD another day.
If you think I’m bitter, I am. This is an attempt to force someone else’s sense of morality on the city at large, and to meet the lowest common denominator. We’ve thrown up our hands in trying to keep drug users from using drugs, either because it seems futile or because we have brainwashed ourselves into believing that treating the symptoms are more important than treating the underlying disease. That presumes, of course, that all of those who would use these sites are in fact afflicted with an illness beyond their control.
In some quarters, even suggesting that this will harm the communities in which they will be located (nice leafy neighborhoods in Chestnut Hill? A pop up in Rittenhouse Square?) is considered cruel and uninformed. Who am I kidding? It seems that’s how it’s portrayed in most quarters of our fair city.
But despite the fact that it’s almost a fait accompli, I’m speaking out on behalf of those who think it’s wrong, dangerous and a unique and utter madness.
Like the Hatter, in that other Wonderland.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at email@example.com.