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Major law firm to represent the non-profit launching Philly’s supervised-injection site

The move gives advocates some added clout in the legal fight for a supervised injection site.

Ronda Goldfein and Jose Benitez of Safehouse's board, pose at Prevention Point, the city's only needle exchange.
Ronda Goldfein and Jose Benitez of Safehouse's board, pose at Prevention Point, the city's only needle exchange.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

The international law firm DLA Piper has signed on to represent Safehouse — the nonprofit organization attempting to launch a supervised-injection site in Philadelphia — pro bono, the organization announced Monday.

The nonprofit’s leaders say the move gives Safehouse some added clout in the legal fight for a supervised-injection site, where people with addiction can use drugs under medical supervision, be revived if they overdose, and access addiction treatment and other social services. If opened, it could become the first supervised-injection site in the country.

Although Philadelphia’s mayor and district attorney support the opening of a privately funded supervised-injection site, federal authorities have threatened legal action — civil or criminal — if a site is opened in Philadelphia. In an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News earlier this year, U.S. Attorney William McSwain called the idea “fundamentally illegal.”

DLA Piper’s decision to represent Safehouse “demonstrates there’s an ever-increasing group of lawyers who respectfully disagree with the U.S. Attorney’s position,” said Ronda Goldfein, the vice president and secretary of Safehouse’s board and the executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.

Ilana Eisenstein and Courtney Saleski, both partners at DLA Piper’s Philadelphia office, will be joining the nonprofit’s legal team, along with nearly a dozen other lawyers from the AIDS Law Project, partners at local law firms, and a constitutional law professor from the University of Pennsylvania.

Previously, Saleski worked as a U.S. Supreme Court clerk for then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist. And Eisenstein, a former federal prosecutor who ran Delaware’s organized crime and drug enforcement task force, and has argued five times in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, said she reached out to Safehouse after reading news coverage of the effort.

“I just think we are in the middle of a crisis here in Philadelphia,” she said. “We don’t think that the federal drug laws prohibit people of conscience, medical professionals, from providing emergency resuscitation and medical care — for people in the depths of addiction to be provided with life-saving care and clean facilities."

Charging Safehouse’s operators with violating federal law, she said, would be “an unprecedented use of the federal drug statutes."

DLA Piper, which has offices in 40 countries, is also representing the pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma in a case brought by New Jersey’s attorney general over its marketing of the opioid pain pill Oxycontin, widely considered to have driven the opioid crisis. Eisenstein said she couldn’t comment on the firm’s “other client relationships” but added that “I don’t think that myself or the firm sees those positions as in conflict.”

Supervised-injection sites have operated in Europe and Canada for decades, and a city-commissioned study of the available research on the sites concluded that one site in Philadelphia could save 25 to 75 lives per year and millions of dollars in hospital costs and public funds, while reducing the public injection of drugs.

Though several other U.S. cities have announced plans to open supervised-injection sites, those plans have stalled in the past year; Philadelphia may well become the first American city to open a site.

January will mark a year since city officials announced they would sanction the opening of a privately funded site, calling the opioid crisis in Philadelphia “an epidemic of historic proportions." In 2017, there were 1,217 overdose deaths; an estimated 1,100 died of overdoses in 2018 — an encouraging drop, health officials said, but still one of the worst death rates in the country.

Safehouse was incorporated in October, with Jose Benitez, the executive director of the city’s only needle exchange; former Gov. Ed Rendell; and Goldfein, who is married to Inquirer and Daily News editor David Lee Preston, on the board of directors.