A Philadelphia nonprofit group said it will open the nation’s first supervised injection site next week to combat overdose deaths after a federal judge rejected Justice Department efforts to block the plan.
U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh, in a final ruling Tuesday, said the Safehouse proposal doesn’t violate federal drug laws because the intent is to save lives, not encourage drug use.
“We are grateful that the court has once again found that saving lives is not a crime,” Safehouse board member Ronda Goldfein said Tuesday. “We see a great need in South Philly and plan to open there next week.”
Organizers are set to announce details on the opening, first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, at a news conference on Wednesday.
U.S. Attorney William McSwain, who argued against the plan in court hearings last year, vowed to appeal to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“What Safehouse proposes is a radical experiment that would invite thousands of people onto its property for the purpose of injecting illegal drugs,” McSwain said Tuesday. He said the Justice Department, the U.S. Surgeon General and local neighborhood groups oppose the idea.
Under the Safehouse plan, people struggling with addiction could bring drugs to the clinic-like setting, use them in a partitioned bay and get help from nearby medical help if they overdose. They would also be counseled about treatment and other health services.
The opening has been on hold for much of the past year while McSwain’s office argued that the plan violates a 1980s-era drug law known as the “crackhouse statute.” Safehouse lawyers said it wasn’t clearly illegal under that section of the Controlled Substances Act — which regulates the possession, use and distribution of certain drugs — to stand nearby with life-saving medical help. McHugh agreed.
“The ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it, and accordingly, (the law) does not prohibit Safehouse’s proposed conduct,” he wrote in a preliminary ruling last fall that he affirmed on Tuesday.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner support supervised injection sites as the city grapples with about 1,100 overdose deaths per year. The facilities have long operated in Canada and Europe, and have been considered by several U.S. cities, including Seattle, New York and San Francisco.
Goldfein has said she hopes local authorities would resist McSwain’s threat to crack down on clients using the facility.