To hear U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain tell it, saving a life is an “unremarkable proposition.”
That’s how he put it Wednesday in his news conference announcing a civil lawsuit that requests a federal judge declare a proposed supervised injection site in Philadelphia is illegal.
The only evidence supporting a site, he said dismissively, is that if you “shoot up” in a supervised injection site, you are unlikely to die.
For a moment, let’s put aside that there are reams of evidence on the positive impact sites have on the communities they open in. McSwain’s easy dismissal of saving even one life stings particularly sharp for someone like me, who’s lost a family member to an overdose.
And probably for the 1,217 families who lost someone to an overdose in Philadelphia in 2017. Or the estimated 1,100 families who lost someone here last year.
Saving a life is no small thing.
From a purely legal standpoint, there’s room for debate on the legality — under our current crime statutes — of a supervised injection site. McSwain, citing federal law, says it’s like opening a crack house. Advocates say the law was never meant to stop a public health measure that will prevent deaths.
“I think it’s one that should be debated," Jose Benitez, the president of Safehouse, the nonprofit formed to open a site, told me. "We have a difference of opinion. We don’t think we’re doing anything illegal. We think we’re going to set something up that saves lives. All the science tell us that. And we’re going to proceed with the case and make the best argument we can.”
Anyone who’s read this column for more than a week knows how I feel. Open a site now, in any neighborhood in Philadelphia that needs it. (Including, yes, my own, in South Philadelphia.)
So McSwain could have stopped his argument — much as I disagree with it — right there. He thinks it’s illegal. Advocates say it’s not. He’s kicking the question to a judge. And it’s true that he could have done far worse, like seized assets, filed an injunction, or brought criminal charges.
“This is a moderate, incremental, reasonable step,” he said. “We’re not being heavy-handed at all.”
So why, then, the disdain toward saving lives? His sarcasm in that conference room around the simple idea that it might be preferable for people to not die from using heroin -- it overwhelmed. At times, it felt as if McSwain were describing Safehouse’s plans as the inner workings of the Sinaloa cartel. (Even the official transcript has quotes around the phrase save lives.)
Safehouse has “ramped up their operations” in recent months, “emboldened” by the support of the mayor and the district attorney, he said. Yes, with the support of the city’s top elected official and the city’s top law enforcement official — and a former governor and sainted nun — they have formed a board, hired one person, and begun looking for a site and funding. Simply heinous.
Then he fell down a well with the evidence. Deaths spiked in Vancouver when a site opened, he suggested. Not true — they dropped significantly in the area immediately around the Vancouver site, and in British Columbia, they rose slightly or dropped, year to year, until fentanyl poisoned that city’s drug supply as it has our own. Advocates say the toll would have been that much worse without a site.
More recently, in Toronto, a pop-up supervised injection site reversed more than 200 overdoses in less than a year.
McSwain’s posturing that he’s merely concerned with the rule of law falls apart when you listen to the way he dismisses the fundamental purpose of a supervised injection site. Saving lives.