Feds Sue To Stop Safe Injection Site In Philadelphia

By Kelly Burch 02/08/19

Federal authorities are invoking a "crack house statute" from the '80s in their attempt to stop the opening of the site.

fed preparing a lawsuit to stop safe injection site

Federal authorities in Philadelphia are suing to stop the opening of a safe injection site in the city. 

"These folks have good intentions and they're trying their best to combat the opioid epidemic,” William McSwain, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, told NPR. "But this step of opening an injection site crosses the line.”

McSwain is suing to stop Safehouse, a nonprofit, from opening a supervised injection site. The organization has said that it has support of city officials and plans to open the site this year. However, McSwain said that the site—where people would bring drugs to inject under medical supervision—is illegal.  

“If Safehouse or others want to open this type of site, they need to steer their efforts to get the law changed,” he said. 

The federal authorities cite a portion of the Controlled Substances Act that was written during the 1980s when people were concerned about the crack epidemic. The so-called crack house statute makes it illegal to operate a place to make, store, distribute or use illegal drugs. The law was originally written to prosecute people operating crack houses, but authorities have used it in other circumstances, said Alex Kreit, a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and a drug policy specialist. 

However, Kreit noted that this is the first time authorities will try to use the law against a safe injection site. 

"It is completely untested in terms of how federal law will apply to safe injection sites,” he said. "People will be watching this very closely—particularly in other cities that have expressed their intention of starting a safe injection site.”

Although Philadelphia has been at the forefront of the supervised injection site debate, other cities from around the country are considering similar measures. There are no safe injection sites in the U.S., but data from Canada and other countries indicate that such facilities can help stop the spread of disease and reduce overdose deaths because medical professionals are on hand.

Proponents also argue that the sites will be able to connect drug users with resources including treatment. 

Despite this, McSwain said in a letter to Safehouse that the law "makes no exception for entities, such as Safehouse, who claim a benevolent purpose.”

Safehouse’s vice president and attorney Ronda Goldfein said that she’s confident that a federal judge will recognize that the site is not the intended target of the statute. 

"We have a disagreement on the analysis and intention of the law. We don't think it was intended to prevent activities such as this, and perhaps it will take a court's ruling to move the issue forward."

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