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The Walmart of Heroin: A Deeper Look at the Kensington Drug Problem

The Walmart of Heroin: A Deeper Look at the Kensington Drug Problem

The Walmart of Heroin: Update on Drugs in Kensington

Since the beginning of the opioid epidemic, many areas in the United States have been hit hard. Some have been affected worse than others.

Philadelphia is known for its rich history, cheesesteaks, and love for the Eagles. But despite its joys, a neighborhood called Kensington made a name for itself as home to the nation’s highest rates of heroin overdoses. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in late December 2019, heroin abuse in Kensington worsened. Now, as the stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and social distancing guidelines have been lifted, our Philadelphia addiction center is taking another look at the “Walmart of Heroin” and the Kensington drug problem.

What’s the “Walmart of Heroin”?

Kensington is a neighborhood in Philadelphia that has a crime rate higher than the national average.1 The Kensington area includes West Kensington, East Kensington, Fairhill, Port Richmond, and Olde Richmond. It’s known for its alarming heroin problem, which is why it was coined the “Walmart of Heroin.” It’s considered the largest outdoor narcotics market for heroin on the East Coast. Kensington went from a blue-collar factory neighborhood to a drug-ridden city when it suffered deindustrialization in the 1950s. As financial investments from the city dwindled, the drug market filled the economic gap. Now, Kensington receives drug tourists, or people seeking out the cheapest and most potent drugs from all over the nation and even from other countries, in addition to drug-using residents.

Update on Kensington, Philadelphia Drugs

Kensington drugs have caused major problems for Philadelphia residents. Since 1994, the city’s rate of drug overdose skyrocketed, tripling its number of homicides and exceeding the number of deaths related to AIDS.2 The drug problems in the area have made its crime rate the third highest in the city at 1.21 percent.3 In this part of Philly, it’s common to see people injecting heroin and nodding off on the sidewalk in the middle of the day. Although time has passed since the start of the opioid epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic has only contributed to the nation’s drug problems. There were an estimated 88,000 reported drug overdose deaths in 2020, a 27 percent increase from the previous year. In 2019, Pennsylvania had one of the highest drug overdose death rates in the nation at 35.6 per 100,000 people.4

Kensington currently has over 80 corners with open-air drug markets, according to the area’s police department. In 2020, an estimated 47 people were killed, and 231 people were shot and wounded. Unfortunately, Kensington’s heroin economy continues to thrive. It contributes to its high crime rate, including gun violence.5 2020 saw the highest mortality rate related to drug and gun violence in this area since 2015. Despite the mandates and social distancing requirements implemented because of COVID-19, drug dealers and addicts still gather in the streets. Due to the pandemic, drug dealers and distributors also struggled to obtain the same amount of ingredients they were once accustomed to using. As a result, less potent heroin that produces an even shorter-lasting high has been sold more frequently. This has increased the rate of abuse and purchase of heroin.

A New Threat on Kensington Skid Row

A troubling public health crisis involving the influx of xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer popularly known as "tranq," into the country's medicine supply has centered on Kensington.6 This strong sedative, which is cheap and becoming more and more common, has been found in more than 90% of drug samples in Philadelphia. Remarkably, according to data from Philadelphia's Department of Health, the city had a record-breaking 1,276 unintentional overdose deaths in 2021, with xylazine detected in more than a third of them.7

However, the problem goes beyond Philadelphia, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that xylazine overdose deaths in the US have increased dramatically, with a 35-fold increase in 2021 over 2018. The Drug Enforcement Administration had found evidence of "tranq" in at least 48 states by the year 2023.7

Although xylazine has been a Kensington, Philadelphia drug presence for around eight years, it is now more frequently found in illegal substances across the nation. Xylazine was first permitted by the Food and Drug Administration only for use in veterinary medicine. However, the DEA claims that dealers nationwide started mixing xylazine with other common street narcotics including heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl to increase profits. This is how xylazine entered the illegal drug market. Known by many as the "zombie drug," "tranq" causes users to go into trance-like stupors whether they inject, snort, or smoke it.

Of the Kensington drugs that put users at risk, this substance has particularly serious side effects, with many people getting debilitating wounds on their limbs and other areas. The DEA states that if these wounds are not treated, they may become necrotic and require amputation. The common overdose reversal medication Narcan can counteract opioids in an opioid overdose involving xylazine, but it cannot reverse the effects of xylazine. According to the CDC, people may still appear extremely drowsy and need further medical care as a result.

What’s Been Done to Combat the Kensington Drug Problems?

In response to the opioid epidemic and drug problems in Kensington, Philadelphia, non-profit organizations and government officials are coming together to create an action plan. Safe housing, food, medical care, and employment opportunities are being opened to those in need of help. Even with heroin addiction treatment, these individuals will continue to struggle if they are homeless, isolated, and unable to find food or shelter.

Prevention Point is a private, non-profit organization that provides harm reduction services to Philadelphia. The program has provided prisoners with medications to treat opioid addiction, including naltrexone and buprenorphine. Naloxone kits are also being distributed for the reversal of opioid overdoses, in addition to testing for HIV and Hepatitis C and treatment referral. The Prevention Point Center also provides temporary shelter and meals for those struggling with addiction to any of the Kensington Ave drugs we have discussed.

As a rehab in Pennsylvania, the heroin problem in Kensington is alarming. In response to the growing number of people in our state and surrounding areas struggling with heroin addiction, we offer opioid addiction treatment to ensure that patients have all they need to recover. We want to help fight the Kensington drug problem and put the “Walmart of Heroin” out of business.


If you or a loved one is a victim of heroin addiction or any other substance use disorder, do not wait a moment longer to get help. Call Banyan Treatment Centers now at 888-280-4763 for more information about the levels of care of Pennsylvania addiction treatment that we offer.


  1. S. News Real EstatePhiladelphia, Pennsylvania
  2. NIH - Addressing the Socioeconomic Complexities of Addiction—Lessons from the Kensington
  3. Philadelphia Inquirer - Crime in Philadelphia
  4. CDC - Drug Overdose Mortality by State
  5. Philadelphia Inquirer -  Business and bloodshed
  6. ABC - Community groups, medical experts work to combat emerging 'tranq' drug crisis
  7. Phila.gov - Unintentional Drug Overdose Fatalities in Philadelphia, 2021
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa is the National Director of Digital Marketing and is responsible for a multitude of integrated campaigns and events in the behavioral health and addictions field. All articles have been written by Alyssa and medically reviewed by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Darrin Mangiacarne.
The Walmart of Heroin: A Deeper Look at the Kensington Drug Problem
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