Attorneys for Safehouse, the nonprofit working to open a supervised injection site in Philadelphia, are arguing in federal court that the sites are a legitimate medical intervention, not illicit drug dens. The suit also states that the organizers’ religious beliefs compel them to save lives at the heart of one of the most devastating overdose crises in the country.
In early February, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to declare illegal any potential supervised injection sites, where people can use drugs purchased elsewhere under medical supervision so they can be revived if they overdose and also access other health and housing services. At a news conference announcing the suit, he said supervised injection sites “normalize the use of deadly drugs."
And he cited a 1986 federal law known as the “crack-house statute” — which makes it a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison to knowingly open or maintain any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using controlled substances.
Safehouse’s response to the suit, filed Wednesday, asked the judge to bar the U.S. Department of Justice from enforcing the crack-house statute against it. Lawyers for the nonprofit argued that the statute does not apply to Safehouse, which exists primarily to save the lives of people who overdose. (Safehouse is being represented pro bono by DLA Piper.)
McSwain’s office had no immediate comment on the suit Wednesday.
If it opens, Safehouse would be the nation’s first supervised injection site, which makes sense, the suit notes, since Philadelphia has the worst big-city opioid crisis in the country. Last year, an estimated 1,100 people in the city fatally overdosed, just about 100 fewer than in 2017.
“In 120 sites across the world for the last 30 years, we’ve seen this is a way to save lives, and Philadelphia’s government says they think this is a good thing to do,” said Ronda Goldfein, Safehouse’s vice president. An attorney, she also is executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. “We and the members of the board felt compelled to do that. If you can save a life, why wouldn’t you?”
The nonprofit also drew on its founders’ religious beliefs, citing passages from the Bible and the Talmud that call on believers to save the lives of those in need.
The suit notes that Jose Benitez, Safehouse’s president, was raised and educated in the Catholic Church, and that Goldfein, who is married to Inquirer and Daily News editor David Lee Preston, was raised Jewish and still attends the synagogue her grandfather co-founded in New Jersey. Other board members cited in the suit include Frank A. James III, the president of Missio Seminary, a Christian seminary in Hatfield; and Chip Mitchell, the lead evangelist at the Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ.
“At the core of all board members’ faith is the principle that the preservation of human life is paramount and overrides any other considerations,” the lawsuit reads. “The DOJ’s threats and the initiation of a lawsuit against Safehouse burdens Safehouse by forcing it to choose between the exercise of its founders’ and directors’ religious beliefs and conformity with the DOJ’s interpretation of [the crack-house statute.]”
Citing religious beliefs to counter federal or state drug laws isn’t unheard of in harm-reduction circles. Last year, a Maine man founded the “Church of Safe Injection” to address a lack of needle exchanges in his home state; the organization has a Philadelphia chapter that, in December, suggested that if the church obtained a religious exemption from federal drug laws, it could act as “an extra line of defense” for Safehouse.
Though the nonprofit has been offered a lease at no cost on a property near the Allegheny Avenue Market-Frankford El stop in Kensington — the heart of the overdose crisis — Goldfein said Safehouse officials have not signed a lease and do not have funding to open the facility yet.