The Slatest

Judge Rules Philadelphia’s Planned Supervised Injection Site Does Not Violate Federal Drug Laws

A man uses heroin under a bridge where he lives with other addicts in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.
A man uses heroin under a bridge where he lives with other addicts in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A federal judge gave the go-ahead Wednesday to a Philadelphia nonprofit’s plan to open a supervised injection site to try to reduce the number of fatal overdoses in the city. The landmark ruling allowing the organization, called Safehouse, to proceed could revolutionize how local governments combat the opioid crisis that has claimed 400,000 lives over the past decade. At the proposed safe site in the Kensington neighborhood, which has become a hub of heroin use, users would be permitted to bring their own drugs purchased on the street and inject or smoke them under medical supervision. “Typically, a site is stocked with naloxone, the antidote to overdoses of illegal fentanyl, and heroin, as well as oxygen, which helps revive overdose victims,” according to the Washington Post. “Some sites also provide clean syringes, matches for cooking heroin, elastic strips to tie off veins, water to dilute drugs and other provisions.”

Other cities have considered opening similar sites, but the Justice Department’s strong opposition thwarted those efforts. In Philadelphia, where there have been more than 3,000 overdose deaths in the past three years, city leaders have supported Safehouse’s effort to push ahead and open a site. The city’s district attorney agreed not to prosecute the operators of the facility nor those who take drugs there. The Justice Department, however, sued in February to stop the program, claiming it violated federal law. The DOJ argued the proposed site violated the so-called “crack-house statute” portion of the 30-year-old Controlled Substances Act that was designed to criminalize places where illegal drug use was known to occur.

U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh disagreed with the government’s interpretation of the law, however, writing that “[n]o credible argument can be made that facilities such as safe injection sites were within the contemplation of Congress.” “I cannot conclude that Safehouse has, as a significant purpose, the objective of facilitating drug use,” McHugh wrote. “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.”

The Department of Justice has said it will appeal the decision.