A Portrait of Philadelphia’s ‘Walmart of Heroin’

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Drug Enforcement Administration agent Patrick Trainor calls the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia the largest open-air narcotics market for heroin on the East Coast. It’s known for having both the cheapest and purest heroin in the region and is a major supplier for dealers in Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland. For years, the heroin being sold in Kensington was pure enough to snort, but in the summer of 2017, it was mixed with unpredictable amounts of fentanyl. In Philadelphia, deaths related to fentanyl had increased by 95 percent in the past year, reports the New York Times Magazine. Philadelphia County has the highest overdose rate of any of the nation’s 10 most populous counties. The city’s Department of Health estimates that 75,000 residents are addicted to heroin and other opioids, and each day, many of them commute to Kensington to buy drugs. The neighborhood is part of the largest cluster of overdose deaths in the city. In 2017, 236 people fatally overdosed there.

Every year, “drug tourists” from all over the U.S. visit Kensington for the heroin. Eunice Sanchez, a local pastor, put it more succinctly: the area, she said, was the “Walmart of heroin.” As the white population fled for the suburbs in the 1950s, Hispanics and African Americans moved in. With few investments from the city, the drug market filled the economic vacuum. Houses transformed into drug dens, factories into spaces to shoot up, rail yards into homeless encampments. The police realize they can’t arrest the problem away, and officers spend many calls reviving drug addicts with Narcan. DEA has focused on the high-level drug traffickers, not the guys working the streets, and the arrests did little to curb the growing demand. “You see everything here,” one local resident says. “Overdoses, shootings, killings. We are exposed to trauma every day just living here. It’s constant.”

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