Feds Try To Block Philly Safe Injection Site

By Kelly Burch 09/13/19

Advocates and opponents of a proposed safe injection site pled their case during a recent federal hearing. 

judge making a decision during federal hearing in Philly
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In Philadelphia, drug addiction is rampant. The city has struggled to clean up homeless encampments riddled with drug use and disease, but that just pushed the problem elsewhere.

Now, the city’s mayor and other officials support a controversial plan: opening America’s first supervised injection site. 

The federal government, however, is fighting to stop that. The Trump administration filed a lawsuit in February, and on Thursday (Sept. 5) during a federal hearing, William M. McSwain, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, personally argued that the proposed safe injection site is illegal. 

Crack House Statute

“If this opens up, the whole point of it existing is for addicts to come and use drugs,” McSwain said, according to the Philly Voice. That would violate the so-called “crack house statute,” a portion of the Controlled Substances Act introduced in the 1980s that makes it illegal to “manage any site for the purpose of unlawfully using a controlled substance,” the Voice reported. 

In court, advocates and opponents debated the purpose of a safe injection site. McSwain and his team argued that the purpose is for people to use drugs, making the site illegal. But attorneys for Safehouse, a nonprofit that plans to open the proposed site, said that the purpose is to save lives and connect people with treatment. 

Saving Lives, Offering Treatment

“I dispute the idea that we’re inviting people for drug use. We’re inviting people to stay to be proximal to medical support,” said Ilana Eisenstein, chief attorney for Safehouse. 

Ronda Goldfein, vice president of Safehouse, said that although the idea seems radical, it is not inherently different from the work that’s already being done with needle exchanges and Narcan programs. 

She said, “If the law allows for the provision of clean equipment, and the law allows for the provision of naloxone to save your life, does the law really not allow you to provide support in that thin sliver in between those federal permissible activities?”

However, McSwain argued that the seemingly small difference is a big deal. 

“If Safehouse pulled an emergency truck up to the park where people are shooting up, I don’t think [the statute] would reach that,” he said. “If they had people come into the unit, that would be different.”

The judge in the case could make a ruling at this point, or could request more hearings to decide whether or not the plans for the safe injection site can move forward. Safehouse and many people around Philly are holding out hope for another tool in the fight against overdose deaths. 

“We recognize there’s a crisis here,” Goldfein said. “The goal would be to open as soon as possible.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.