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After a landmark federal ruling, what’s next for Philly’s supervised injection site?

There's still much to be done before the nation's first official supervised injection site can open in Philadelphia.

Pedestrians walk at the corner of Kensington Avenue and Allegheny Avenue, an area known to be at the center of the heroin epidemic.
Pedestrians walk at the corner of Kensington Avenue and Allegheny Avenue, an area known to be at the center of the heroin epidemic.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

After a court ruling Wednesday that Philadelphia’s proposed supervised injection site does not violate federal law, city officials, residents, and the site’s backers said they were focused on their next steps — as there’s much to be done before a site can open here.

The landmark ruling could make Philadelphia the first city in the country to open a site where people can use drugs under medical supervision, be revived if they overdose, and access treatment. The new momentum around the issue has intensified big questions about what’s next — in the courtroom, in the neighborhoods where a site is most likely to open, and in the state legislature, where pushback on the sites has already arisen.

Safehouse officials said the ruling by U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh removed the biggest legal hurdles toward opening a site. But they still want further guidance from the court, which they expect to receive in the next few weeks, possibly after another hearing, said Ilana Eisenstein, an attorney for Safehouse.

“The really big piece was the legal determination that if our purpose is to save lives and get people into treatment, it’s not prohibited by federal law,” she said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office — which asked McHugh to declare the sites illegal — said it would continue to fight the case in court. The concept also has garnered opposition from State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), who said he is drafting a bill that would make supervised injection sites illegal under state law. He said he wants more community conversations around the issue and wrote that the answer to the opioid crisis is not “state-sanctioned drug use."

“This policy represents a significant conversation that needs a lot more detail provided,” he said. “If we’re going to have a site like this, that site should represent not just saving a life, but getting people removed from drug addiction.”

Eisenstein declined to comment on the potential bill but said Safehouse believes its approach is a legitimate public health measure. Part of the site’s plans for operation include encouraging clients to enter treatment. Mayor Jim Kenney’s spokesperson, Mike Dunn, called the bill “political grandstanding” and said Williams seemed “mired in the old thinking that has perpetuated this crisis.”

While some residents in Kensington — the epicenter of the city’s overdose crisis and the neighborhood most likely to host a site — say they’ll continue to oppose the site; others have said it may be time to try something new in the neighborhood.

At a community meeting Thursday night in Harrowgate — a neighborhood abutting Kensington whose civic association filed a brief opposing the sites in federal court — residents said they were disappointed in the ruling but unsure of what the next steps were, beyond supporting any potential appeals.

“We sort of figured [a ruling in favor of Safehouse] was going to happen," said Jim Ridgway, vice president of the Harrowgate Civic Association. He and others said they were concerned about drug dealing and drug-related violence around a potential supervised injection site, and hadn’t heard from the city about a policing plan for the area.

Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director, said that plan was nearly ready. Abernathy said the city is excited by the ruling but proceeding with caution.

“The country’s eyes are on us, and if we screw it up, we screw it up for the rest of the country,” he said. “We have to do this right, well, and effectively.” He declined to comment on the details of the policing plan but said it would focus on people who sell drugs near the site.

“We’re committed to tackling the predators that we think will target people using the site,” he said.

Still, some Kensington residents have said it’s time for change. “We’ve tried a lot of things, and they haven’t worked,” said Deborah Davis, who attended the Harrowgate meeting. “Maybe it might be a good idea. I’m hoping for the best, because people really need help.”

Roz Pichardo, a neighbor and volunteer with the harm-reduction group SOL Collective, said she was tired of reversing overdoses on the street. Last month, she said, she tried unsuccessfully to revive a man who had overdosed on the Market-Frankford El surrounded by schoolchildren on their way home. One high school student asked her if she needed help, explaining that he’d just learned how to dispense naloxone.

“This isn’t something people should be seeing in public, out in the open,” Pichardo said. “If they had a safe space, we can prevent some of the additional trauma our kids are seeing.”

For her, the next steps toward opening a site include a concerted push to convince her neighbors that it’s worth opening one.

Drug users and people sleeping rough in Kensington said Thursday that they were excited about the ruling — even if some echoed residents’ concerns about entrenched drug use and dealing in the area.

Larry Colon, 22, newly in recovery but still camping off Kensington Avenue, said he would have used a supervised site when he was still using heroin, though he was worried that dealers would fight for potentially lucrative turf around the site. “It’s a great idea," said Colon, who grew up in the neighborhood. But like all things in Kensington, he said, it will be complicated.

A man who declined to give his name said he believed the site could change people’s lives — especially if it helped them get into treatment. “I don’t think anyone likes getting high on the streets,” he said. He said he has been living rough for four months, after relapsing and leaving his parents’ house so they didn’t have to see his drug use.

“I don’t think there’s a negative that can come out" of a supervised-injection site], said Megan Wood-Kashnoski, who has been in recovery for 16 months but still receives medical services in the neighborhood. “It only takes one person getting clean to call it a success."