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Federal Judge Rules in Favor of Safe Injection Site Opening in Philadelphia

The site will be the first of its kind in the nation.

Former Pharmaceutical Company CEO Indicted for Role in Opioid Crisis
Monika Gruszewicz/ Shutterstock

The nation’s first supervised safe injection site is set to open in Philadelphia next week following a judge’s ruling that the facility does not violate federal law. The ruling from federal Judge Gerald A. McHugh of the United States District Court finalizes a ruling he made last year in favor of the nonprofit organization Safehouse, which plans to operate the site in South Philadelphia.

Attorney Ronda Goldfein, a Safehouse board member, said that supervised injection sites are needed in Philadelphia to help address the continuing opioid crisis.

“We have the highest death rate of any big city in America, three times that of Chicago, which is number two and five times that of New York, which is number three, and our numbers continue to rise,” Goldfein said. “The 2019 death rate is expected to pass the death rate of 2018. Three to four people die of overdose every day in Philadelphia and with numbers like these, we are compelled to act.”

Safehouse’s supervised injection site is supported by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who is also a member of the organization’s board. But many residents and city leaders are opposed to safe injection sites. U.S. Attorney William McSwain filed a motion last year attempting to block the opening of Safehouse.

“I think people misunderstand what Safehouse is. It’s a clean injection facility. We don’t handle narcotics,” Rendell said at a press conference on Wednesday morning. “People have to bring narcotics with them. We give them clean needles, and make sure the needle they used in Safehouse is confiscated before they go out of the street. But most importantly, we talk to them about treatment before they can inject themselves in front of nurses, in front of doctors. We have social workers talk to them about treatment.”

Kenney praised the judge’s ruling in a statement. But Jody Della Barba, a South Philly resident and community leader, told local media that she is opposed to Safehouse opening in her neighborhood.

“I don’t think that the mayor thought this out and what it’s going to do to South Philadelphia,” Barba said. “And then maybe he did. Maybe he doesn’t care.”

Feds To Appeal Judge’s Ruling

However, McSwain isn’t giving up yet. He plans to appeal the ruling, saying that supervised injection sites violate statue 856, also known as the crack house statute. The federal law makes it a felony to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place … for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.”

“We respectfully disagree with the District Court’s ruling and plan to appeal immediately,” McSwain said in a statement. “What Safehouse proposes is a radical experiment that would invite thousands of people onto its property for the purpose of injecting illegal drugs. In our view, this would plainly violate the law and we look forward to presenting our case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.”

Goldfein said before the ruling that she expected the government to appeal but that the move would not stop Safehouse from opening the supervised injection site.

“We plan to open once we have authority to do so,” she said. “Unless a court rules otherwise, parties are permitted to move forward despite an appeal pending.”

Supervised injection sites are also being considered in other cities including New York, San Francisco, and Seattle.

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