A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that a Philadelphia nonprofit can open a medically supervised injection site under U.S. law, an unprecedented ruling that could open the door for other cities to pursue so-called "safe injection sites" to combat the opioid epidemic.
About supervised injection facilities
The nonprofit group, Safehouse, was formed last year with the backing of current and former Philadelphia officials to open the nation's first safe injection site in Philadelphia.
These sites allow individuals who misuse drugs to do so under the care of health care professionals and without risk of arrest. For instance, Safehouse said individuals who visit the site will be able to obtain sterile syringes and referrals to addiction treatment programs and legal services at the facility.
Supervised injection facility supporters say the clinics could help to reduce drug-related deaths and curb the spread of diseases like hepatitis C and HIV.
However, opponents have said the facilities could exacerbate drug misuse. The Drug Enforcement Administration also has said such facilities violate federal law that prohibits the use of certain controlled substances.
In February, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a civil complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to stop Safehouse from opening the medically supervised injection site.
The suit asked the court to rule that injection sites are unlawful under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which the suit states makes it illegal "to … manage or control any place, regardless of compensation, for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance."
Lawyers for Safehouse countered that the law was passed to apply to owners of drug houses, not supervised injection sites.
U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh on Wednesday sided with Safehouse and ruled that the nonprofit's plan to open a medically supervised injection site does not violate U.S. law.
"I cannot conclude that Safehouse has … the objective of facilitating drug use," McHugh wrote. He continued, "Safehouse plans to make a place available for the purposes of reducing the harm of drug use, administering medical care, encouraging drug treatment and connecting participants with social services."
McHugh wrote that the Controlled Substances Act would not apply to Safehouse's injection site because the site is focused on preventing drug overdoses. "No credible argument can be made that facilities such as safe injection sites were within the contemplation of Congress" when lawmakers first adopted the law or when they amended it in 2003, McHugh wrote.
However, McHugh declined to comment on whether supervised injection sites are an appropriate means of opioid misuse prevention, saying such a determination does not lie with the courts.
While Safehouse officials conceded the ruling is a "big step forward," they said it is unclear whether they will run into more legal issues while establishing the injection site.
"It's not over by any stretch," said Ronda Goldfein, VP of Safehouse and director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. "At this very first level of judicial determination, the court has agreed that that law is not intended to stop us from saving lives," she said.
DOJ officials said they will appeal the ruling.
"This case is obviously far from over," said U.S. Attorney William McSwain, who argued the case in court. "We look forward to continuing to litigate it," he said.
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen in a statement said DOJ is "[d]isappointed in the court's ruling," adding that "[a]ny attempt to open illicit drug injection sites in other jurisdictions while this case is pending will continue to be met with immediate action" (Roebuck/Whelan, Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/2; Bernstein, Washington Post, 10/2; Owens, "Vitals," Axios, 10/3).