The proposed facility in Kensington would allow people struggling with addiction to use drugs under medical supervision, access treatment, and be revived if they overdose.
The organization behind what could be the nation’s first safe injection site made clear this week it hopes to open in Philadelphia as soon as possible, despite an imminent appeal from the Department of Justice.
In court documents filed earlier this week, attorneys for Safehouse asked U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh to issue an order finalizing his Oct. 2 decision that the organization’s proposed safe injection site does not inherently violate the “crackhouse statute” of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act.
“The ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it,” McHugh wrote.
The proposed facility would prioritize harm reduction and allow people struggling with addiction to use drugs under medical supervision, access treatment, and be revived if they overdose.
William McSwain, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania who first sued Safehouse in February to stop the opening of the site, did not say whether he would oppose Safehouse’s request for a final order, but reiterated his plan to file an appeal.
“This is a necessary first step to getting the case elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which will hear the government’s appeal. We are looking forward to that opportunity,” McSwain’s office said in an emailed statement.
McSwain has also promised to “use all enforcement tools” available to him to prevent the facility from opening. These efforts could include drug seizures, prison sentences of up to 25 years, and criminal forfeiture proceedings, he said.
Representatives with Safehouse hope that obtaining a final judgment from McHugh could allow them to open their doors while the appeals process plays out, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Supervised injection facilities, also known as safe consumption sites, have long been controversial, and the reaction to Safehouse’s proposal has been no different. Fifty percent of Philadelphia residents support the idea of such a site, while 44 percent oppose it, according to a 2019 poll funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
McHugh’s initial decision was celebrated by advocates of safe consumption sites, who believe the facilities can save lives and provide health resources to people experiencing addiction. But his order has been criticized by Philadelphia’s police union and some residents of Kensington, the neighborhood where Safehouse plans to open a facility (though the organization has not picked a specific location there yet).
These residents are concerned that the Safehouse facility could increase drug use and dealing in their neighborhood, which is already “the largest open-air narcotics market for heroin on the East Coast.” In 2017, 236 people died of drug overdoses in Kensington, making it the site of nearly 20 percent of Philadelphia’s fatal overdoses.
While Kensington is ground zero of Philadelphia’s overdose crisis, the issue is a city-wide one. In 2017, there were 1,217 overdose deaths in Philadelphia, the highest rate of overdose deaths of any American city or county with at least 1 million residents, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are no facilities to study in the U.S., but a study of international safe injection sites by the Rand Corporation found no evidence of increases in drug use or drug dealing in areas surrounding facilities that allow supervised consumption.
In fact, as Stateline reported in November, safe injection sites in Australia, Canada, and Europe have been found to reduce overdose deaths, increase access to health services, and lead to a decrease in drug use in the surrounding neighborhoods.
In 2017, 236 people died of drug overdoses in Kensington, making it the site of nearly 20 percent of Philadelphia’s fatal overdoses.
One of the most notable successes has been found in Vancouver, Canada, where the first medically supervised consumption site in North America opened in 2001. From 2001 to 2005, drug overdose deaths declined 35 percent in the neighborhood and 9 percent in the rest of the city, according to a study conducted by the University of British Columbia.
Supporters have pointed to these successes and say a change in approach is necessary to combat America’s growing overdose crisis. In fact, the American Medical Association announced its support of “the development of pilot facilities where people who use intravenous drugs can inject self-provided drugs under medical supervision” in 2017.
“We believe this is an evidence-driven initiative that can save lives,” Safehouse vice president Ronda Goldfein told the Inquirer.
Safe consumption site advocates have tried to open similar facilities in cities like Boston, New York, and Denver. Lawmakers in Maine, Vermont, and several other states have also introduced legislation to open facilities, only to run into significant roadblocks.
Support for the idea, however, is growing. Several of the leading 2020 Democratic presidential contenders—including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg—have said they would back legalizing safe injection sites.
Safehouse is hoping to capitalize on that momentum and pave the way for other cities and states to follow in Philadelphia’s footsteps.