February 21, 2024

Maribel Vazquez’s neck was so badly bruised, she appeared to have been viciously strangled.

But her wounds weren’t from the clutching hands of a sadistic, would-be killer. They were self-inflicted.

The dark brown, yellow and purple markings covering Vazquez’s throat, she told The Post, were track marks from countless injections of fentanyl, cocaine and “tranq”, that she paid other drug users — known as “hitters” — to administer.

“I need a hit,” she calmly yelled out to a man who was hunched over and showing clear signs of being high on “tranq” — like so many others on the streets of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.

The man stumbled over to Vazquez, 43, who handed him a few dollars, some drugs, and a syringe.

“He’s my ‘hitter’,” she explained before sitting on the sidewalk, which was littered with used needles and discarded bright orange caps.

Maribel Vazquez, 43, told The Post she had been discharged from rehab just three weeks earlier. Stephen Yang

The man flopped down next to her and rested his legs over hers for stability as he prepared the powder to be injected.

Over the next five to 10 minutes, gruesome scenes ensued.

Arguably, Vazquez couldn’t have picked a worse person to carry out the job she paid him to do.

Moments earlier, the man was bent over and swaying on the sidewalk with an open container of food in one hand. He could hardly stand, speak, or see straight — let alone be trusted to perform a dangerous medical procedure on another person.

If he went too deep, or hit an artery instead of a vein, Vazquez would have been at risk of a serious reaction, or even death. But she was ready for another hit, and all that mattered at that moment was that she got it.

“I was in treatment for the past two years and relapsed three weeks ago,” said Vazquez, adding that she recently lost custody of her two-year-old son.

“I just fell again. I have as much [drugs] as I can get [every day].”

Vazquez said she has a two-year-old child who is no longer in her care. Stephen Yang
Vazquez is injected by her “hitter” who she paid a small fee to perform the task. Stephen Yang

Vazquez braced for her next hit, then scrunched up her face and made an unsettling gurgling sound as her “hitter” – struggling to keep his eyes open – stuck the needle into her already battered neck.

Blood gushed out of the entry site before he pressed the needle in harder. He pulled it out and pushed it in again and again, drawing more blood with each unsuccessful attempt to find a vein until, finally, it worked.

Vazquez told The Post she typically repeats this process with her hitter five or six times a day. 

And she’s not alone.

Ground zero of the opioid crisis and ‘tranq’ epidemic

Kensington, northeast of Philadelphia’s Center City, has long been a neighborhood where police turn a blind eye to the sale and consumption of drugs, drawing thousands of users each year to openly inject themselves and each other on the streets.

Many drug users can be seen slumped over or passed out at all times of the day in the area. Stephen Yang
Brian Harrison sways on a road in Kensington after taking a hit of drugs. Stephen Yang

Now, the place has become ground zero for xylazine, or “tranq”, a powerful horse and cattle tranquilizer infiltrating the illicit drug supply to enhance the effects of heroin, cocaine and fentanyl. Its chief side effect is necrosis, the premature death of cells in organs or tissues, which causes gaping wounds.

Philadelphia health officials are well aware that the City of Brotherly Love has been overwhelmed by the “tranq” epidemic.

“Xylazine has hit Philadelphia particularly hard, causing increased overdose deaths as well as severe wounds that can lead to sepsis and amputation,” the Philadelphia Department of Health and Board of Health said in a joint statement in April.

The drug is so addictive and dangerous that Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, labeled it an “emerging threat” earlier this year.

Xylazine was found in over 90% of drug samples tested in Philadelphia in 2021, according to city data.

Jillian, 34, and Mike, 36, who did not provide their last names, told The Post their drugs of choice were “crack, meth and coke”. Stephen Yang

Many heavily addicted users who come to Kensington to buy and inject the substance can no longer find their own veins. Others simply aren’t comfortable or confident enough to inject themselves. And so, they pay “hitters” to do it for them, according to dozens of users who spoke to The Post.

The going rate is between two and five dollars per jab.

“Some people are scared of hitting themselves or don’t know how to do it,” fentanyl and crack user Stephanie Mackenzie, 35, told The Post on a side street.

“Some people’s veins are harder to hit than others so they need someone to do it for them.”

But that can be incredibly risky, since the majority of people who claim to be expert “hitters” tend to have no medical training at all and are just looking for quick ways to fund their own habits.

Groups of homeless people line the streets of Kensington – an open-air drug market. Stephen Yang

In several instances witnessed by The Post, some “hitters” were so high when they tried to inject others that the process turned into a grim game of “pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey” — except with a syringe full of illicit drugs and a fellow human being.

“Some people will pretend they know what they’re doing just because they want to make that $5 or they want that bag of dope or something of value,” MacKenzie said.

“They’ll have no idea what they’re doing and they’ll completely mess your veins up.” 

In 2021, Philadelphia recorded nearly 1,300 unintentional overdose deaths, a 160% increase from a decade earlier, according to city data. The highest number of deaths — 164 — occurred in Kensington’s zip code.

Representatives for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) declined to comment on the risks of ‘hitting’ when contacted by The Post.

‘Kensington is a circus’

John MacMullen, 52, told The Post he has been coming to Kensington for about three years to feed his fentanyl, crack and meth addictions.

“Kensington is a circus and you can’t just trust anyone,” he said. “People become known hitters when they get good at it by being fast and not hurting. 

“You’ve gotta do it right.”

Drug user and “hitter” Justin Long told The Post that people line up at his tent in a homeless camp every morning waiting for him to inject them. Stephen Yang

MacMullen said his most trusted hitter had been a guy he met on the streets and knew only as “Justin.”

“He’s the best of the best,” MacMullen added.

The Post located Justin Long, a 37-year-old father of three young children whom he lost custody of long ago, in a filthy homeless camp on the outskirts of the neighborhood.

Long puts out a bin fire at the request of a police officer. Stephen Yang

“Addicts basically pay me to make sure that drugs go in their system correctly and that they’re getting what they paid for,” Long said, as several users crowded around waiting to pay him for a hit.

“I inject them in their necks. If their necks don’t work, I’ll hit them in their arms,” he said. “It takes about 10 seconds to inject someone when you do it right.”

Long charges $5 per hit and claims he clears between $120 and $130 a day, money he uses to buy food, heroin and cocaine. He said he “always” shoots his own drugs up himself.

“I won’t let anyone else touch me,” he added.

According to Long, whose legs were covered in necrotic wounds caused by “tranq,” he is woken most days at around 4 a.m. by about six people lining up outside his tent who want his services.

“With this ‘tranq’ stuff you go to sleep and you wake up sick so people are wanting that next hit to feel better,” he explained.

Long’s body is covered in large wounds caused by using “tranq”. Stephen Yang

While Long said he is careful not to harm anyone, he doesn’t feel guilty about the role he’s playing in other users’ addictions.

“If they don’t come to me and I don’t get the money, they’re going to go somewhere else,” he said, claiming “I’ve never had anybody overdose through me hitting them.

“Before I hit anybody, I ask them what’s in their shot,” he says. “Most people mix it up in front of me, and if it’s too much, I won’t do it. Because I don’t want that on my shoulders.”

Long told The Post he first realized he had a knack for hitting about two years ago, when he was able to find and inject the vein of a user “that nobody else could get”.

“I’ve had two people drop into seizures the whole time I’ve been doing it. I just put them on their side and let them go through their seizure and make sure they’re all right. One time we had to call an ambulance.” 

Terra Droneburg, 36, a fellow drug user who is engaged to Long, has filled in for him as a “hitter” when he’s been hospitalized with infections and other ailments caused by his addictions.

“I have an eye for it,” she cheerfully explained.

Long injects his partner Terra Droneburg in the neck after she asked him to “hit” her with the concoction. Stephen Yang
Terra Droneburg scrunches up her face as her partner Justin Long responds to her request to “hit (her)” with drugs. Stephen Yang

“You have to know what you’re feeling for because there’s a difference between an artery, a vein and a tendon.

“A lot of things can happen. You have to have a lot of trust. You could paralyze somebody. You could do a lot of damage,” she goes on, adding that: “I just sort of taught myself.”

Moments later, Droneburg announced to Long that she was ready for another hit. He quickly injected her in the neck. The drugs kicked in soon after and she slumped over on the sidewalk, with her eyes closed and mouth open. Her swollen legs, also covered in sores, were on full display.

Moments after being injected with drugs, Droneburg was slumped over on the sidewalk Stephen Yang
Clean and used needles are scattered everywhere throughout Kensington and are stocked in most homeless camps Stephen Yang

“It’s tough to get out of addiction,” Long said. “The things they’re putting in the drugs these days, the tranquilizers and things, it’s tough.

“I’d love to have my own tow truck, my own business, and just have my family back together,” he adds.

“The cops come by but they don’t ever really stop or give us any trouble. I’ve heard of one person getting in trouble for drugs the whole time I’ve been out here. They don’t focus on the drugs. They focus more on us hanging out and the homelessness.”

The police response

Philadelphia’s Police-Assisted Diversion Program operates in three districts, including Kensington, and encourages officers to divert those accused of non-violent drug offenses, prostitution or retail theft toward health-centered services, according to the police department’s website. The program offers offenders access to treatment rather than sending them to jail. 

While The Post observed many police cars patrolling the area over several days, none of them interfered with the widespread drug activity openly taking place on the streets. In one instance witnessed by The Post, a police car pulled up to a homeless camp while about a dozen people were shooting up.

“Put out that fire,” the officer told the group, pointing to a small bin blaze the group was using for warmth. He waited approximately five minutes, until the flames were extinguished, then drove away.

Used needles are scattered along the main street in Kensington, Philadelphia. Stephen Yang

Philadelphia Police spokesperson Eric Gripp said the department has “actively been working with a multitude of local, state, and federal agencies to address opioid use citywide and in our Kensington Neighborhoods”.

“Open drug use is a symptom of a larger public health crisis,” he told The Post. “We recognize the optics and the effects on those who live, work and play in these communities – but simply arresting all users is not sustainable.

“Therefore, along with our partners, PPD is part of a multi-pronged approach that balances enforcement with harm reduction and support for those struggling with addiction,” Gripp went on.

“Make no mistake, PPD has legal authority to address illegal activity. However, the severity of addiction, limited resources, and community concerns necessitate a multifaceted approach.”

Kensington’s streets are lined with homeless people and many drug users in various states of disarray. Stephen Yang

Gripp also noted that the PPD’s East Police Division — which carries out regular narcotics enforcement in Kensington — has had “some success” over the past year.

“Our department has made over 1,800 arrests, and confiscated $21.5 million worth of narcotics – ($10.5 million of which is fentanyl) as well as 232 firearms,” he added. “These efforts thus far have seen significant reductions of shootings and homicides in those areas.

“However, we recognize that this is not nearly enough, and that there is still a lot of work to do.”

Earlier this year, Philadelphia’s Opioid Response Unit unveiled an action plan to tackle the “tranq” crisis by reaching out to local communities in a bid to increase prevention, partnering with schools and places of worship to promote anti-drug messaging, expanding access to treatment programs and joining forces with law enforcement agencies to disrupt the open-air drug market. 

John MacMullen and Stephanie Mackenzie have both been using on the streets of Kensington for about three years, according to them. Stephen Yang

In October, the City released a six-month update, and highlighted its most “notable” developments including the implementation of a Citywide Outreach and Engagement Plan “that seeks to increase access to substance use treatment and harm reduction-related materials in Philadelphia zip codes experiencing disproportionate rates of overdose”.

‘Disneyland for drug addicts’

Meanwhile, drug users and dealers continue to flock to the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast.

“The main appeal is the availability,” MacKenzie told The Post. “Kensington is an adult Disneyland for drug addicts.

“It has a reputation so people just migrate here because they know they can do it and not get in trouble, and that it’s available,” he added.

“The drugs are everywhere you turn.”