Philadelphia’s largest open air drug market in the Kensington section of the city. (Michael Bryant/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)
Opinion writer

There are few drug reporters around doing better work right now than Christopher Moraff. The 47-year-old journalist has been filing firsthand reports from a part of the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia where heroin addicts congregate. Here’s a an excerpt of an interview with him by Mike Riggs from Reason.

So instead we get a lot of news stories, especially at the biggest publications, that are regurgitating fifth- and sixth- and seventh-hand perspectives on opioids.

Which means you miss these little indicators. I’m working on the adulterated drug story right now: Street drugs are being adulterated in dangerous ways, like fentanyl added to cocaine, and we’re not sure why. One media outlet reports a single death from contaminated drugs, then another re-reports that same story, and the next thing you know, we have this huge trend of cocaine adulterated with fentanyl.

But if you’re not out there, you don’t know the culture, which means you don’t know the right questions to ask. One of those questions is: Are you testing the drugs, or are you basing this theory on postmortem toxicology? Because people use opioids and cocaine together on purpose. It’s called “speedballing,” and there’s more of it now than there ever has been in Philadelphia. A lot of concurrent cocaine and heroin use . . .

You do your own contaminant testing of street drugs, using chemical reagent test strips that turn a certain color if fentanyl is present in a mixture. Tell me about your reasons for that.

That originally started as a journalistic mission based on a policy change that happened in Philly. We had a place called El Campamento, which was a long-established outdoor user camp secluded by the Conrail train tracks in the mostly Latino stretch of West Kensington. This was the old heroin market, where families had been in the trade for decades.

The city started catching flak for it and then Dr. Oz came here because of a Philadelphia Inquirer article that used the phrase “Heroin Hellscape” in the headline. He toured the camp with [Drug Enforcement Administration] agents and cops and cameras. After that, the city shut the camp down and made a big deal out of it. But the corners in that area had been there forever. They changed hands, but it was real professional. When they shut the camp down, it pushed a lot of the trade and the users eastward into areas that were not established, disciplined markets . . .

For some reason, the Latino community here just got this market right. They’re very businesslike. In the ’90s, if you had a problem, there was a manager you could complain to. It was as legit as a black market could be.

The city disrupted this. As a result, I knew there were a lot of freelance corners popping up. I started testing because I had this hypothesis that breaking down these organizations from the top—which is the law enforcement strategy—makes the drugs more dangerous and the culture more violent. I started testing bags on the other side [of Kensington Avenue], from corners that I knew did not exist before, and comparing them to the ones on the old side, and trying to see if they were selling more fentanyl. I had this idea that if you were a young buck who was starting out, you might not have the connection that the old suppliers had, kilos of heroin coming up along the South and through Atlanta.

There’s fentanyl all over Philadelphia. But almost every bag that has fentanyl without also containing some heroin has come from these new corners.

Read the entire interview here.