A divided federal appeals court on Jan. 12 ruled against the opening of what would be the first “supervised injection site” in the United States, saying plans for a site in Philadelphia ran afoul of a federal law originally passed to shut down drug dens.
“Though the opioid crisis may call for innovative solutions, local innovations may not break federal law,” wrote Judge Stephanos Bibas of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, siding with U.S. Attorney William McSwain of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who had sued to block the site.
Tuesday’s 2-1 ruling overturned a lower court ruling in favor of Safehouse, a Philadelphia non-profit formed in 2018 that had for years attempted to open the first site in the city. According to the nonprofit, the supervised injection site would allow individuals to bring illegal opioids and inject them in the presence of medical professionals who could treat them for overdoses.
“The Third Circuit’s opinion is a faithful reading of the statute’s plain language and is consistent with Congress’s intent to protect American neighborhoods from the scourge of concentrated drug use,” McSwain said.
“But Congress has made it a crime to open a property to others to use drugs. … And that is what Safehouse will do,” the ruling stated, highlighting a 1986 federal law known as the “crack house” statute.
“Philadelphia is known around the world as the birthplace of our wonderful nation and of liberty itself. Due to the dedicated work of those at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, it will not be known as the birthplace of heroin injections sites,” the opinion said.
Similar efforts were also pushed back in Seattle this week following Tuesday’s ruling.
Ilana Eisenstein of DLA Piper, who represents the nonprofit, said that it is disappointed with the decision.
“We remain confident that the law was not intended to force Americans to stand by as idle witnesses while our brothers and sisters are dying. Conscience compels us to pursue all legal options, and we shall.”
Around 80 percent of all heroin addicts start their habit through prescription painkillers. In 2018, more than 67,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, and almost 70 percent of those involved an opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC said last month that deaths from drug overdoses are accelerating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overdose deaths were already increasing in the months before the pandemic started, but the latest numbers suggest a further acceleration, the agency said.
Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to provisional data the CDC released.
According to the agency, that’s an 18 percent increase since the previous 12-month period.
Synthetic opioids, primarily the illicitly manufactured fentanyl, appear to be the primary driver in the increased number of overdose deaths. Those deaths increased by 38.4 percent during the period in question, when compared to the 12-month period ending in June 2019.
Overdose deaths where the victims took cocaine increased by 26.5 percent. Many of the deceased who used cocaine also used fentanyl or heroin, or took cocaine that was contaminated with one or the other. And overdose deaths involving psychostimulants such as methamphetamine increased by 34.8 percent.
“The Court’s decision re-affirms that ‘safe’ injection sites are a violation of federal law,” Acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen said. “The Department supports efforts to curb the opioid crisis ravaging this country, but injection sites are not the solution.”
Zachary Stieber and Reuters contributed to this report.