First U.S. Supervised Injection Site to be Sued by U.S. Prosecutors

Tyra Hilliard
Staff Writer

PC: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

After spending months building a case, federal prosecutors in Philadelphia have jump started a legal battle against the nonprofit organization, “Safehouse,” which aims to provide the nation’s first supervised injection site for those who have an opioid addiction. The Department of Justice in Washington has also joined the civil lawsuit.

Safehouse officials maintain that this innovative medical facility can save lives. However, if the lawsuit falls to the side of federal prosecutors, any steps taken to put building plans of the injection site into motion will lose momentum.

“This is in-your-face illegal activity using some of the most deadly, dangerous drugs that are on the streets. We have a responsibility to step in,” said U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William McSwain. “It’s saying, ‘Safehouse,’ we think this is illegal. Stop what you’re doing.’”

The opening of the injection site would clearly violate the Controlled Substances Act, the original use of which was to shut down drug dens. The act has been used to close other locations of supervised drug use. Such sites are allowed in Canada and Europe, but would be responded to with, “swift and aggression,” if such facilities were opened in the states, said deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein

In the state of Philadelphia, the current lawsuit is one of the least harsh routes that federal prosecutors could have taken. The suit is asking for U.S. District Court Judge Gerald McHugh to decide on the legality of Safehouse’s plans, instead of waiting for the opening of the site, then move forward with arrests and prosecutions.

“We’re not bringing a criminal case right now. We’re not arresting anybody. We’re not asking to forfeit property. We’re not looking to be heavy-handed. This can serve everyone’s interest, in order to find out what the court thinks of this. But this, in our view, is illegal,” said McSwain.

Ronda Goldfein, attorney and Vice President of Safehouse, points out that federal laws were not written to put a stop to medical facilities that have the goals of saving lives and treating those who are addicted to opioids. She is confident that the case will allow Safehouse to move forward in their plans.

“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,” said Goldfein.

Safehouse does not distribute opioids, but rather will allow users to bring in their own drugs, and use them under the supervision of medical staff. Drug policy specialist and law professor, Alex Krait, says that the language within the Controlled Substances Act is broad enough to vow injection sites as illegal. He believes that Safehouse’s chances of winning are slim according to law and the grounds on which they built their defense on. However, there is no precedent in the United States for a case like this, so the results are still blurred.

Philadelphia health officials estimate that three people every day fall victim to opioid-related overdoses. Just last year, more than 1,100 people died of overdoses, which is triple the murder rate in the United States. However, the overdose mortality rate has reached a five-year low. Officials credit the decline to transit workers, police and paramedics who are now equipped with Naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug.

In Canada and Europe, studies have revealed that the transmission of HIV and other infectious diseases have declined since injection safe spaces have been implemented. In addition to the sites being credit, to reducing the number of fatal overdoses and allowing for a smoother transition into recovery services. However, McSwain maintains his position.

“That doesn’t mean that you’re not going to overdose when you’re not at the site. And it doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be other negative effects of having a site, where more people are, for example, getting hooked on drugs or trying drugs, because they think it’s safe, or they think it’s legitimate or they think it’s legal,” said McSwain. “We don’t attract people to go down this path of drug dependency that destroys their lives.”

McSwain fears that the opening of Safehouse’s site will encourage people to try and normalize the use of synthetic opioids, which can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin.

In November 2018, McSwain sent a letter to Safehouses officials asking that the nonprofit comply with federal law; making sure that they knew that the law, “makes no exception for entities, such as Safehouse, who claim a benevolent purpose.” Safehouse simply responded with, “we respectfully disagree,” seemingly because the laws were never meant to attack medical injection sites. They ended their response with, “we hope that the U.S. Attorney’s office will exercise prosecutorial discretion in assessing our proposed overdose prevention services’.

It took three long months, but federal officials took Safehouse to court.

“These folks have good intentions and they’re trying their best to combat the opioid epidemic but this step of opening an injection site crosses the line. If Safehouse or others want to open this type of site, they need to steer their efforts to get the law changed,” said McSwain.

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