The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Wednesday announced a federal lawsuit to have safe injection sites in Philadelphia declared illegal in a first-of-its-kind action in the nation.
U.S. Attorney William McSwain’s office had filed the lawsuit Tuesday, asking for a declaratory judgment that says safe injection sites, where heroin users can inject the drug under the supervision of medical staff, violates provisions of the Controlled Substances Act. The case, United States v. Safehouse, has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh.
According to McSwain, the lawsuit is the first in the nation, and may presage the way federal prosecutors and courts will address an issue that is being debated in several cities across the country.
“This is definitely a national issue that the Department of Justice is looking at broadly,” he said at a press conference Wednesday morning, noting that members of the civil department in Washington, D.C., were involved in filing the suit. “We’ve been in touch with our friends in Washington about how this will affect people throughout the country. It just so happens Philadelphia was poised to be the first city to go forward.”
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Although McHugh’s decision is likely to apply just to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where the lawsuit was filed, it will undoubtedly have ramifications for other jurisdictions.
The ruling “could be persuasive, or helpful authority to a judge in California, New York, Colorado, Washington State, or wherever this issue might come up,” McSwain said. ”This could be a defining case.”
The defendant, Philadelphia-based nonprofit Safehouse, is being represented by the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and DLA Piper attorney Ilana Eisenstein.
In a statement to the press, Ronda Goldfein, the executive director of the AIDS Law Project, who also sits on the Safehouse board, said she appreciated that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had not “taken an aggressive hand” in resolving the issue, and added that the group has “consistently maintained that our disagreement may need to be resolved by the fair and impartial judicial system.”
Eisenstein also said in the statement that the defense ”respectfully disagree with the Department of Justice’s view of the ‘crack house’ statute,” referring to the section of the Controlled Substances Act that the lawsuit focuses on.
“We are committed to defending Safehouse’s efforts to provide lifesaving care to those at risk of overdose through the creation of safe injection facilities,” she said.
The lawsuit specifically takes issue with Safehouse’s stated plan to operate a “consumption room,” where medical staff would oversee heroin injections.
It is Safehouse’s position that the site would help stem the recent increase of opioid-related deaths and reduce the spread of disease, but McSwain said the site clearly violates the law. He dismissed the notion that the law, which makes it illegal to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place” for the use of controlled substances and has historically been used to prosecute houses were drugs were sold, makes any distinction for doctors, nurses or others who do not sell drugs, but are there to provide medical oversight.
McSwain’s position on safe injection sites contrasts with the stated policies of some local law enforcement and leaders, including Mayor Jim Kenney and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner—both of whom McSwain named during the press conference Wednesday, saying they had “emboldened” Safehouse.
McSwain maintained during the press conference that the lawsuit simply seeks to enforce the law as written.
“If Safehouse wants to operate an injection site, it should work through the democratic process to try to change the law,” he said. “It should not expect prosecutors to turn a blind eye to wholesale illegal behavior and play politics by allowing political ideologies to determine their proprietorial decisions.”