PHILADELPHIA (CN) - Drawing a line in the sand with the mayor on how to handle Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, the city’s top prosecutor brought a federal complaint Wednesday to block a nonprofit from opening the nation’s first safe injection facility for drug users.
Several cities including New York and Seattle have considered safe injection sites as a way to combat opioid-related overdoses, but Philadelphia is the only one on the brink of implementation after the nonprofit Safehouse raised $1.8 million to cover the first year of operations.
Safehouse announced in the fall that its facility would be a safe space for drug users to inject street-purchased heroin and fentanyl under the supervision of medical employees who would be able to revive addicts immediately in the case of an overdose.
U.S. Attorney William McSwain named the nonprofit Safehouse as well as its executive director, Jeanette Bowles, as defendants in a civil lawsuit Wednesday.
Philadelphia holds the title for highest opioid death rate in the country with 1,217 unintentional drug-related deaths in 2017. Heroin and fentanyl overdoses were responsible for a share of that figure, along with pain relievers like tramadol and oxycodone.
While Mayor Jim Kenney and other city officials have said they’d back safe injection sites, U.S. Attorney William McSwain said Wednesday that the so-called “consumption rooms” envisioned by Safehouse would not be in compliance with the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Enacted in 1970, the act makes it a illegal to establish a place that persons can frequent to engage in illicit drug use and deems any person or entity operating a place that manufactures, distributes, or prioritizes the use of controlled substances eligible for up to 20 years in prison.
“I recognize that we are all on the same side in this fight,” McSwain said at a press conference Wednesday. “We all want solutions that save lives, but allowing private citizens to break long-established federal drug laws passed by Congress is not an acceptable path forward.”
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, both Democrats, are among those who have voiced objections to Safehouse’s plans, but Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has sided with the mayor, saying that he would not to prosecute safe injection site establishments or users.
Safehouse has not yet disclosed where it plans to build, but it notes that drug dealing or sharing would be barred on the premises, as would be needle sharing and other drug paraphernalia. Staffers would also be barred from coming into contact with the drugs brought to the site.
McSwain said he wants Safehouse and community partners to come together for a discussion on how to fight the opioid epidemic, but he held firm that a safe injection site would be violate federal law.
“The law is clear – and it is my job to respect and enforce the rule of law,” McSwain said. “If Safehouse wants to operate an injection site, it should work through the democratic process to try to change the law. But normalizing the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl and ignoring the law is not the answer to solving the opioid epidemic.”
Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt agreed on behalf of the unit’s civil division.
“Operating spaces for the purpose of allowing the use of illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl violates federal law and creates serious public safety risks,” Hunt said in a statement. “The Civil Division will not hesitate to bring actions like this against any state, city, municipality, or private entity that attempts to open a so-called ‘safe-injection site.’”
The case will be heard by U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh. An initial hearing has not yet been set.
Representatives for Safehouse and DLA Piper, which is providing free representation for the nonprofit, did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment.
The Associated Press has reported that a likely location for Safehouse to build is in Kensington, north of downtown, where so-called "drug tourists" flock to buy high-grade heroin and city librarians have learned to use Naloxone to respond to bathroom overdoses.
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