The outcome of a legal battle over whether to open the nation’s first supervised injection facility (SIF) rages on in Philadelphia. The result could influence other efforts to do the same elsewhere in the U.S.
In February, Pennsylvania prosecutors and the federal Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit attempting to stop a local non-profit organization, Safehouse, from opening SIF locations in Philadelphia.
They cite the “crack house statute” under the Controlled Substances Act, which made it a crime to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily… for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.”
In response, Safehouse is countersuing the government in federal court. They argue that the “crack house statute” does not apply to SIFs. “Safehouse is nothing like a ‘crack house’ or drug-fueled ‘rave.’ Nor is Safehouse established ‘for the purpose’ of unlawful drug use,” stated Ilana Eisenstein, a lawyer for Safehouse.
They argue that SIFs are less about drugs and more about providing a medical service. By giving people a safe place to use under medical supervision rather than alone on the street, SIFs save lives. Another important feature of SIFs, proponents say, is that they offer access to treatment and support.
“If you find a place that accepts the fact that you’re going to be consuming drugs and still offers you services in a non-judgmental way, you’re going to start to trust them,” says Ronda Goldfein, vice president and co-founder of Safehouse. “And once there’s a trust relationship, you’re more inclined to accept the range of treatment they’re offering, which includes recovery.”
Safehouse also cites the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 in its countersuit. “[This] service is an exercise of the religious beliefs of its Board of Directors, who hold as core tenets preserving life, providing shelter to neighbors, and ministering to those most in need of physical and spiritual care,” stated Safehouse lawyer Eisenstein.
Seattle, New York, Denver, Maryland, Maine and more are also considering opening supervised injection facilities, as opioid abuse and overdose have become increasingly problematic throughout the country.
William McSwain, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania who is suing Safehouse, says the outcome of the legal battle could have a ripple effect across the U.S.
“This is something that I think people will be looking at as, in a sense, a test case that will have implications in other districts,” he said.
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