A nonprofit's proposal to open the nation's first supervised injection site for opioid users in Philadelphia does not violate federal law, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh released a 56 page opinion on the nonprofit group Safehouse's proposed safe injection site and the subsequent opposition to it from U.S. Attorney William McSwain.
Safehouse has been in negotiations to open the site in Kensington, a neighborhood known as the center of Philadelphia's opioid crisis.
Safehouse had considered more than two dozen locations around Philadelphia but found a property on Hilton Street. The group said the goal was to open more sites throughout the city where people can use heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs under medical supervision, with staffers able to intervene in case of an overdose.
U.S. Attorney McSwain filed a motion in February to stop Safehouse from opening a site, arguing that safe injections sites violate federal drug laws and would only further plunge Philadelphia into an opioid crisis.
Of particular focus in the argument was statute 856, also known as the "crack house" statute, which makes it illegal to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place ... for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.”
In his statement, Judge McHugh wrote that the statute, adopted in 1986, does not apply to safe injection sites.
"This narrowness of focus reflects a fundamental underlying reality, which is that no credible argument can be made that facilities such as safe injection sites were within the contemplation of Congress either when it adopted 856(a) in 1986, or when it amended the statute in 2003," McHugh wrote. "And that baseline reality ultimately has substantive significance in determining whether this statute is properly applied to the safe injection site proposed by Safehouse."
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who sits on Safehouse's board, all support the proposed site.
Kenney also applauded the judge's ruling Wednesday.
"It’s clear that Congress could not have intended to ban overdose prevention sites (OPS) when it passed or amended the law," he wrote. "Using the sites as a possible harm reduction strategy had not yet entered the public discussion, as the court said. The purpose of overdose prevention sites is to reduce drug use and increase access to treatment—that’s obviously not what Congress intended to prohibit. We look forward to working with Safehouse to ensure that these sites operates in a safe and effective manner for those in need of help and for the benefit of the surrounding communities."
Ronda Goldfein, a Safehouse vice president, said the group would seek clarity from McHugh in the next few weeks on whether to move forward with plans to open sites across the city.
McSwain could also appeal the decision. He released his response to the ruling in a written statement Wednesday.
“As Deputy Attorney General Rosen explained today, the Department of Justice remains committed to preventing illegal drug injection sites from opening," he wrote. "Today’s opinion is merely the first step in a much longer legal process that will play out. This case is obviously far from over. We look forward to continuing to litigate it, and we are very confident in our legal position.”
The issue has divided public officials in Philadelphia and around the nation, although similar sites are in use in Canada and Europe. Supervised injection sites are also being considered in other U.S. cities including Seattle, New York, San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts.
Philadelphia has the highest opioid death rate of any large U.S. city, with more than 1,000 deaths per year.
"I believe overdose prevention sites can save lives, reduce the transmission of infectious disease, help connect individuals suffering with substance use disorder to treatment and other services, and reduce the litter associated with open-air drug use," Kenney wrote. "There are challenges to overcome -- and if the City is going to be a national model in harm reduction we need to do it right and in partnership with the community."