Last year, the nonprofit organization Safehouse formed in Philadelphia with the intention of creating safe-injection sites for heroin users. Public health experts have touted the idea for such sites — which would provide a place for opioid users to shoot up under medical supervision — as a way to limit overdose deaths and prevent the spread of HIV. It’s a harm-reduction method that has been used across the Europe to great success — outdoor drug use decreases and overdoes death is reduced. So far, no death has ever been reported at a safe-injection site.
Yet if the Trump administration has its way, the sites will never exist. On Tuesday, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Safehouse, seeking to prevent the organization from opening a safe-injection site in Philadelphia, which has one of the highest overdose rates in the nation.
The DOJ is suing Pennsylvania nonprofit Safehouse and exec. director Jeannette Bowles over a plan to open a safe injection site in Philadelphia, which has been hard-hit by opioid overdoses. pic.twitter.com/5yliqvy3Lk
— Jess Aloe (@jess_aloe) February 6, 2019
The filing was expected, as the federal government has previously threatened to take legal action should an organization seek to open a safe-injection site. “I’m not aware of any valid basis for the argument that you can engage in criminal activity as long as you do it in the presence of someone with a medical license,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told NPR last year. The complaint filed Tuesday argues that the Controlled Substances Act prohibits managing any place, regardless of compensation, “for the purpose of unlawfully using a controlled substance.”
The government’s argument that safe-injection sites would violate federal law has been met with criticism from advocates. “This isn’t black and white,” tweeted Leo Beletsky, a law and health professor at Northeastern University. “There is an entire cannabis industry functioning in blatant violation of federal law. Bottom line is that the federal government is CHOOSING to enter into this battle, just as it’s paying lip service to public health.”
Representatives for Safehouse have also said that they disagree with the Justice Department’s interpretation of the law, and plan to fight the suit. “We are committed to defending Safehouse’s effort to provide lifesaving care to those at risk of overdose through the creation of safe injection facilities,” said Safehouse attorney Ilana Eisenstein, according to the New York Times.
Studies have shown that safe-injection sites like the one proposed in Philadelphia not only reduce overdoses and prevent the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis, but they help facilitate recovery. The Safehouse site in Philadelphia would have been staffed by social workers, recovery coaches and other medical personnel. Clean needles would have been available, and staff would have been trained to administer naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney supported the facility, as did the city’s DA, Larry Krasner, who said last year that his office would not prosecute anyone who operates or uses drugs at a safe-injection site. “We have to be willing to do what is necessary to save lives,” he said.
Encouraged by the potential benefits, cities like New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Denver have considered endorsing similar facilities. Despite widespread support within affected communities, however, some efforts to open safe-injections facilities have been thwarted at the state level, and a federal roadblock like the one thrown down by the Justice Department on Tuesday is going to make things more difficult.
Opioid-related deaths in America have risen precipitously in recent years. Over 70,000 people died from overdoses in 2017, more than a four-fold increase from 1999, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In January, the National Safety Council for the first time deemed Americans more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a car accident.