PHILADELPHIA (CN) — A Philadelphia nonprofit’s plan to open the nation’s first supervised injection site for drug users was given the green light Wednesday when a federal judge ruled that such establishments do not violate federal law.
U.S. Attorney William McSwain sued Safehouse in February after the organization announced plans to open a safe drug-injection site where trained professionals would supervise the use of heroin or fentanyl.
He claimed the facility would breach the federal Controlled Substances Act, specifically a provision commonly known as the crack-house statute that punishes parties who knowingly maintain a place “for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using controlled substances” with up to 20 years in prison.
But in his 56-page ruling Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh determined this 1986 provision did not apply.
“Congress here determined that making places available to facilitate drug use, supporting the drug market as crack houses and raves do, warranted moral condemnation and punishment,” the judge wrote. “Congress has not had the opportunity to decide whether such moral condemnation and punishment should extend to consumption facilities that are components of medical efforts to facilitate drug treatment.”
McHugh, a Barack Obama appointee, said Safehouse’s proposed facility would not facilitate drug trafficking that “a reasonable person would instinctively identify as nefarious or destructive.”
“Even if one believes it to be misguided, the nature and character of what it proposes is not prototypically criminal,” he wrote, noting that Safehouse’s goal isn’t to aid in administering prohibited drugs but to protect users from the harm they can cause, such as overdose deaths. Philadelphia saw a record 1,217 unintentional opioid-related deaths in 2017.
McHugh’s ruling will likely shape legal debates surrounding the legality of safe injection sites in other cities considering their adoption, including Seattle, San Francisco and New York City.
In a statement Wednesday, McSwain indicated his office would appeal the ruling.
“Today’s opinion is merely the first step in a much longer legal process that will play out,” he said. “This case is obviously far from over. We look forward to continuing to litigate it, and we are very confident in our legal position.”
Safehouse attorney Ilana Eisenstein with DLA Piper said Wednesday that she and her clients were gratified that the judge agreed that federal law would permit a safe injection facility for the purpose of saving lives and preventing overdose deaths.
“This is a major step forward that lays the legal groundwork for moving ahead with this critical public health intervention,” she said in an email.