On Wednesday, October 2, US District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled that the plans of a non-profit, privately-funded, harm reduction organization to establish a Safe Injection Site in Philadelphia do not violate federal law. A group that includes former Philadelphia Mayor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was warned last year by then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that their plans to establish “Safehouse” would be a violation of federal law and would face a “swift federal response.” In February of this year, US Attorney for the eastern district of Pennsylvania Bill McSwain sought a declaratory judgment in federal court regarding the legality of the enterprise, arguing that Safe Injection Facilities (also called “Overdose Prevention Sites”) violate the federal “Crack House Statute.”
Governor Rendell spoke about Safehouse and the court battle at the Cato Institute’s conference on harm reduction in March of this year. Also on the panel discussing the matter were Clark Neily, Cato’s Vice President for Criminal Justice, and Darwin Fisher, Program Director of “Insite,” in Vancouver, BC, North America’s oldest Safe Injection Facility. You can view that panel discussion here. In their argument before the court, the Department of Justice called Safehouse an “in-your-face illegal activity.”
While the Justice Department intends to appeal the ruling, this is still a very encouraging development. Several other cities have been wanting to allow for the establishment of Safe Injection Facilities, including Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and New York City. They are watching what happens in Philadelphia very closely.
As I have written here and in my Policy Analysis on harm reduction, Safe Injection Facilities have a more than 30-year track record of reducing overdose deaths, cases of HIV and hepatitis, and IV drug use in over 120 cities in Europe, Canada, and Australia.
Unfortunately, efforts to establish Safe Injection Sites in the US still have a battle in front of them. US Attorney Bill McSwain reacted to the judge’s decision by saying, "The Department of Justice remains committed to preventing illegal drug injection sites from opening. 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."