Jessica Swanson, MJLST Staffer
Plans for the nation’s first supervised injection facility hit a snag earlier this month when Philadelphia’s top prosecutor filed a federal complaint to keep it from opening its doors. Supervised injection facilities (SIFs) are legally sanctioned facilities that allow people to consume pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of trained staff and are designed to reduce the number of lives that would otherwise be lost to overdoses and provide a bridge to treatment. SIF staff members do not directly assist in consumption or handle any drugs brought in by clients, but are employed to provide sterile injection supplies, free testing, free distribution of the opioid overdose reversal medication, monitoring services for overdoses, and answers to questions about safe injection practices. SIF staff also offer general medical advice and referrals to drug treatment and other social support programs. There are approximately 120 SIFs currently operating in twelve countries around the world, but none in the U.S. However, a handful of U.S. cities, including New York, Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, and Delaware, have inched toward making SIFs a reality as each struggles to combat the increasing amount of drug-related deaths due to the opioid crisis. Philadelphia is by far the closest to becoming home to the nation’s first SIF, incorporated as “Safehouse.” However, on February 5th, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William McSwain, filed a lawsuit aimed at blocking Safehouse from opening its doors.
The civil lawsuit, which is jointly being pursued by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and the Department of Justice in Washington asks a judge to declare such a facility illegal under federal law. Instead of waiting for Safehouse to open and then conducting arrests and a prosecution, McSwain is asking U.S. District Court Judge, Gerald McHugh, to rule on the legality of SIF plans in general. According to the complaint, a supervised injection site would violate a section of the 1986 Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The relevant section, also known as the “crack house statute,” was enacted during the height of the crack epidemic and was primarily used to shut down crack houses. The CSA makes it a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison to knowingly open or maintain any place, regardless of compensation, for the purpose of using controlled substances. McSwain argues that Safehouse seeks to disregard the law and override Congress’ regulatory scheme by establishing, managing, and controlling sites in Philadelphia that will allow individuals to engage in the illicit use of controlled substances. Ronda Goldfein, vice president and attorney for Safehouse, argues CSA was not intended to apply to a medical facility focused on saving lives and moving people who are addicted to opioids into treatment. She argues the provision of the CSA in question is widely known to prosecute situations that involve crimes such as drug sales out of a car dealership or music festivals that allowed illegal drugs to flow freely. Safehouse, on the other hand, is a facility with good-faith efforts to improve public health.
Although other states like Pennsylvania are well-intentioned in opening SIFs, it is likely that the Controlled Substances Act is broad enough to encompass SIFs and thus bar them from operating. If Philadelphia or others want to open this type of site, they might want to steer their efforts towards changing the law. Overall, other cities that have expressed their intention of opening a SIF will be watching this case closely as it serves as an important test to determine the legality of SIFs.