BATTLE LINES DRAWN ON SAFE INJECTION SITES
Authorities from seven states, the District of Columbia and some major U.S. cities are backing a Philadelphia effort to open a supervised drug-injection site, which the federal government is trying to stop in court.
Safehouse, a nonprofit in Philadelphia, seeks to open a site where people can use drugs in a safe and sanitary environment with help to avoid overdose fatalities. Federal prosecutors sued the nonprofit in February, arguing it would violate federal law by creating a place for people to use illegal drugs such as heroin and bootleg fentanyl.
Cities including New York, San Francisco and Seattle, where there are also plans to add safe sites for drug users, filed a brief Wednesday in support of the Philadelphia nonprofit. Another filing from attorneys general, all Democrats, included chief legal officers from Colorado, Michigan, Oregon and the District of Columbia.
The civil suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has created a legal showdown over a concept that has already proven hard to implement in the U.S. over fears of a federal crackdown.
Supporters say these sites can save lives because they offer clean supplies, medical help and serve as gateways to treatment.
Philadelphia is one of the hardest-hit cities in a national drug crisis that led to 70,000 fatal overdoses in 2017, the last year of complete federal data.
Safehouse's plan "is a critical measure designed to save lives and to fill a time-sensitive gap in medical care that many localities struggle to overcome," the attorneys general argued in their brief to the court on Wednesday.
Opponents of the supervised-injection plan include civic associations in and around a drug-ravaged neighborhood in north Philadelphia and a local branch of the nation's largest police union.
An injection site would exacerbate a crisis that already causes crime and open drug use in the neighborhood; they argued in their filing.
"Safehouse claims it should be above the law because it believes its good intentions with respect to one group-those who suffer from addiction-permit it to ignore other innocent victims of the illegal drug trade," the opponents said.
Proponents have argued that evidence beyond U.S. borders, including in Canada, has shown the merits of creating safe places for drug users.
Supporters also included a group of 64 current and former prosecutors and law-enforcement officials; nine Philadelphia-area community organizations; religious leaders; Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and the city's health commissioner.
Philadelphia hasn't committed to opening its own injection site, but has supported the idea of letting private organizations open them. Safehouse's board includes ex-Philadelphia mayor and ex-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
Safehouse Vice President Ronda Goldfein said the nonprofit wants to open multiple sites in Philadelphia, including the hard-hit Kensington neighborhood. First they have to clear the legal hurdle.
"We are respectful and certainly waiting for the court's ruling," Ms. Goldfein said. "We're not trying to drive this stuff underground."