Philly’s Drug Problems Are Probably Bigger Than You Think

When it comes to heroin, prescription pills and PCP, we're worse off than most major U.S. cities, shows new DEA reports.


Drug-related overdose deaths in Pennsylvania counties in 2014 as reported to DEA Philadelphia Field Division.

The Washington, D.C.-based Drug Enforcement Administration has released its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, and Philadelphia doesn’t exactly come out looking like the Next Great American City.

The DEA publishes the study each year, tracking drug trends throughout the country with a specific focus on international organized crime rings. The study points out that drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death by injury in the country, even exceeding deaths by guns and car accidents.

While most of the chatter about drugs in Philadelphia over the last year has been about how great and progressive it is that you can now smoke pot and not go to jail for it, the public health disaster surrounding “hard” drugs like heroin and PCP has all but disappeared from public discussion.

Oh, we always hear about the big drug busts, with law enforcement agencies proudly displaying their victorious piles of kilos, and there’s been a lot of talk of Naloxone, the drug that reverses the effects of heroin overdoses, but none of the people in charge seem to be taking the issue as seriously as it needs to be taken.

Neither Mayor Nutter nor Mayor-Elect Jim Kenney have had much of substance to say about the drug epidemic we face, and not one of the mayoral candidates this year appeared to make drug addiction a priority. And we’re pretty sure it hasn’t come up in the presidential debates.

“We haven’t committed to the idea of dealing with addiction as a public health issue,” says Thomas McLellan, the deputy director of President Obama‘s Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 through 2012 and founder of the Philadelphia-based Treatment Research Institute.

“But it’s not all the politicians’ fault,” he adds. “The public gets what it wants if it’s vocal enough. Affected individuals haven’t stepped up the way they have with HIV, depression and breast cancer, and neither have their families, because everyone is shy and embarrassed and stigmatized. But now that the Affordable Health Care Act and the Mental Health Parity Act have passed, this is no longer an issue of stigma. This is an issue of discrimination.”

According to McLellan, less than a quarter of the medical schools, fewer than a third of pharmacy schools, and not even 10 percent of the nursing schools in the United States offer a single course on substance abuse.

“We could have progress in drug abuse,” he insists. “We know exactly what to do. We just haven’t done it yet.”

We took a look at the DEA report (in full below) and pulled out some of the most interesting findings regarding Philadelphia and the region:

• Heroin availability is high and on the increase. Prominent University of Pennsylvania researcher Charles O’Brien — UPenn’s Center for Addiction Treatment is named after him — confirms to Philadelphia magazine that the center’s patients tell the doctors there about the “easy availability” of the drug. Almost all of the heroin moving through Philadelphia is of South American origin.

Source: DEA's 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary

Source: DEA’s 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary

• As with most cities in America, the availability of prescription drugs for illegal use in Philadelphia is high, but unlike most cities in America, it’s getting worse here. The DEA says that availability has stabilized or gone down in most places, with Philadelphia, San Diego and Detroit being the exceptions.

• Methamphetamine sales have stabilized, but coke dealers have begun pushing meth when the coke supply gets low.

• Speaking of cocaine, the drug’s availability is at historically low levels throughout the country, but not in Philadelphia. Only Philly and Boston report high levels of cocaine, most of which comes to us in large shipments from Arizona, California, and Texas. As you might have guessed, the majority of cocaine still originates in Colombia.

• The availability of synthetic cannabinoids (better known by names like Spice and K2) and cathinone (the dreaded bath salts) has actually gone down, whereas in New Jersey it has gone up.

• For some ungodly reason, people in Philadelphia are using PCP more and more. The DEA says that the dealers have been traced to Philadelphia’s public housing projects as well as to North and Northeast Philadelphia.

• The study cites a New Jersey State Police report that showed that 60 percent of the people who overdosed on heroin in Camden, New Jersey during a set time period weren’t actually Camden residents. They just went there to score.

How are the drugs getting here?

• According to the DEA, thanks to increased law enforcement activity in the southeastern United States, which has chased their operations elsewhere, Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations are increasingly using Philadelphia as a business hub. The Sinaloa Cartel, operating out of the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Baja California, Durango and Sonora, is the primary Mexican cartel operating in Philadelphia. Same for Camden, Atlantic City and most northeastern cities.

• While the Mexican cartels control much of the drug supply coming into Philadelphia, the report says, it is the local Dominican criminal organizations who handle most of the mid-level distribution.

• As of 2013, there were nearly 169 gangs involved in the local drug trade. These include street gangs, outlaw motorcycle gangs and prison gangs. Compare that with the 500 or so gangs in Los Angeles County.

The DEA subsequently released a study of drug overdose death data in Pennsylvania specifically. The study found that heroin was detected in the systems of the majority of Pennsylvania overdose victims in 2014. About half of the overdoses also involved a benzodiazepine — usually Xanax. The average overdose victim is a white male between 31 and 45, although the 46-60 age group was close behind.

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