The top law enforcement officials in seven states and the District of Columbia are saying that states should be allowed to open supervised injection sites to help stop overdose deaths, and that the federal government should not interfere with such public health programs.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the federal lawsuit against Safehouse, the nonprofit planning to open a site in Philadelphia, attorneys general from D.C., Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Virginia argued that in the middle of an opioid epidemic that has killed tens of thousands, states “need the freedom to implement innovative treatment programs to save lives."
Framing it as a states’ rights issue, they wrote that the federal government should not preclude them from exploring many public health options, including supervised injection sites.
None said explicitly that their state plans to open such facilities, where people can use drugs under medical supervision, be revived if they overdose, and access treatment. Still, the brief marked the first time in some states that such high-ranking prosecutors have publicly announced support for the idea.
U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain in Philadelphia has argued that the sites are illegal under federal law, citing the “crackhouse statute,” which forbids the operation of a facility for drug use or sale.
The Fraternal Order of Police lodge and several community groups around Kensington, the epicenter of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis and the most likely location for a site, echoed those arguments in another brief filed with the court Wednesday. They said they were concerned that the facility would draw more drug dealing and gun violence to a neighborhood already plagued with crime.
“These are the horrid consequences that Congress intended to ameliorate when it outlawed the maintenance of any place for the use of illegal drugs,” the organizations wrote. “And they are the consequences that Safehouse’s proposal would exacerbate and entrench.”
Those court filings on opposite sides of the debate were among a number filed Wednesday by legal scholars, religious leaders, advocacy groups, and state and city officials, all hoping to influence U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh’s decision to issue a ruling in the first-of-its-kind lawsuit asking courts to determine the legality of opening a supervised injection site in the United States.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has urged a ruling based on these filings alone. The judge has not indicated whether he will call instead for a full court hearing, as Safehouse’s lawyers have asked.
Officials at Safehouse have argued that the crackhouse statute was never meant to apply to a legitimate public health measure. More than 3,000 people have died in Philadelphia of overdoses in the last three years.
Other parts of Pennsylvania also have weathered alarming overdose rates: More than 5,400 people died of overdoses in the commonwealth in 2017. Also, 4,492 people died of overdoses in 2018. In 2017, the state’s overdose death rate was the third highest in the country.
Still, no Pennsylvania officials submitted amicus briefs in support of either side in the Safehouse case on Wednesday. Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Gov. Tom Wolf have said they disagree with the idea of opening a supervised injection site.
Officials from four areas — New York, San Francisco, King County, Wash. (which includes Seattle), and Pittsburgh — filed briefs in support of Safehouse. All four cities have considered opening sites themselves, based on studies that suggest other countries have reduced overdoses in the areas around their sites, and have ushered more people into treatment.
Efforts to open a site in the U.S. have stalled. Then-California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have sanctioned a site last fall; Seattle has faced threats of a similar lawsuit from its own U.S. attorney.
Other groups filing in support of Safehouse included more than five dozen current and former prosecutors from around the country, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, police chiefs, and several retired federal prosecutors. Philadelphia’s police commissioner, Richard Ross, did not join the brief.
“Eyes around the nation are watching the Safehouse litigation,” said Miriam Krinsky, the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, the criminal justice reform nonprofit that organized the prosecutors’ response. “There’s growing willingness among law enforcement and prosecutors to try something different than a failed War on Drugs approach. I don’t think two years ago we would have seen this many voices come together on this issue. The lives lost and the education we and others have tried to do has led to a shift.”
Mayor Jim Kenney and city health commissioner Tom Farley also submitted a brief in support of Safehouse, writing that the proposed site has “tremendous lifesaving potential.” They noted that though the city has poured resources into combating overdoses and lowering barriers to treatment, it has “only seen a modest reduction in the death toll.”
“We urge the court to reject the federal government’s attempt to deprive the city of a proven lifesaving tool,” they wrote.
Clergy members, local and national advocates combating homelessness and drug addiction, and people who have lost family members to the crisis also filed briefs in favor of Safehouse. Only one brief, by the FOP and some Kensington-area civic associations, was against the idea.
McSwain’s office declined to comment on Wednesday’s briefs, saying the U.S. Attorney’s Office would file its responses in court.