Supervised opioid injection sites in Philadelphia hit a federal roadblock

PHILADELPHIA — A US attorney in Pennsylvania is suing a private nonprofit corporation to fight the opening of supervised opioid injection sites in Philadelphia.

US Attorney William McSwain filed the lawsuit Tuesday in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against Safehouse and its executive director, Jeanette Bowles.

“Because these deadly drug injection sites undoubtedly do violate the law. … Normalizing the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl is not the answer to solving the opioid epidemic,” McSwain said in a statement Wednesday.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney publicly endorsed the concept in early 2018, encouraging the development of “Comprehensive User Engagement Sites.” The walk-in facilities would offer access to sterile needles, the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone, wound care and referral to social services.

“Philadelphia’s fatal overdose rate is the worst in the nation among large cities, and incidents of overdose have steadily increased to an alarming degree,” Kenney said at the time.

Pennsylvania had the third highest rate of death due to drug overdose in 2017, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Philadelphia County had the highest rate of drug-related overdose deaths in the state in 2017, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration report.

The city of Philadelphia released a scientific review in 2017 projecting that supervised injection facilities could save lives, but there are no legally sanctioned supervised injection sites in the United States. Most of the report was based on data from a supervised injection facility in Vancouver.

Canada has more than 30 approved safe injection facilities and is approving more.

“The evidence shows that an [overdose prevention site] in Philadelphia can save lives, and help reduce the negative impacts the opioid epidemic has wrought on Philadelphia neighborhoods,” Kenney’s office said in a statement Wednesday.

“Since we began working with advocates to investigate the use of Overdose Prevention Sites (OPS) in the city of Philadelphia, there have always been legal obstacles to overcome. With this action, the US Attorney’s Office has ensured that the ultimate decision as to whether these sites can move forward in the United States will lie with the federal judicial system,” the statement said.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has spoken out against safe injection sites. “There is no safe way to inject heroin, fentanyl and carfentanyl,” he said when the initiative was announced.

On a local level, however, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner told CNN affiliate CBS 3 that he would decline to prosecute individuals who worked at a “responsibly run harm reduction center.”

The international law firm DLA Piper is representing Safehouse pro bono in the litigation.

“We appreciate that the [US Attorney’s Office] has not taken an aggressive hand in resolving our disagreement over whether Safehouse’s proposed activities are lawful. We have consistently maintained that our disagreement may need to be resolved by the fair and impartial judicial system,” attorney Ronda Goldfein said.

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