Next week, a federal judge in Philadelphia will hear oral arguments in the case of U.S. v. Safehouse. On one side, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William McSwain, will make his case that under federal law, a supervised injection site is illegal. Safehouse, the nonprofit intending to open a site, will argue that the law in question was never meant to cover a public health intervention. As the Sept. 5 hearing approaches, The Inquirer is exploring whether supervised injection facilities violate existing federal law.
According to a provision added to the federal Controlled Substances Act in 1986 — known colloquially as the “crack-house statute”— it is a felony to knowingly open or maintain any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using controlled substances, with a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Proponents of supervised injection sites argue that the measure, enacted as a response to nuisance properties during the crack cocaine epidemic, was never intended to interfere with good-faith efforts to improve public health. Those who object, however, maintain that the law is clear and if the backers of Safehouse, Philly’s proposed supervised injection site, want to move forward legally, they should first lobby lawmakers to change it.
The Inquirer is asking people on both sides of the debate: Does the crack-house statute legally prohibit a supervised injection site from opening in the United States?
Supervised injection sites are plainly illegal under federal law. The law prohibits the opening of “any place” for the “purpose of using controlled substances.” That is precisely what supporters of the consumption sites, including Safehouse, a site attempting to open in Philadelphia, propose to do: They wish to open a place for the purpose of allowing individuals to illegally use controlled substances. As their name suggests, the sites would exist to enable drug consumption. And the good motives behind the proposal do not allow consumption sites’ supporters to take the law into their own hands. Unless the law is changed, it should be enforced in an evenhanded manner. The U.S. Attorney’s position is nothing more than a straightforward application of the law.
But this question is not just about the law’s plain meaning. Supervised consumption sites are also inconsistent with the overriding purpose behind the federal law. Congress passed the “crack-house statute” not only to reduce illegal drug use, but also to protect our communities. The law’s legislative history makes crystal clear that Congress knew that facilities that attract illegal drug use frequently represent the death knell for communities, especially those already struggling with the impact of drug abuse. As the act’s sponsor explained, Congress outlawed the maintenance of “places where users congregate to purchase and use” drugs in order to prevent the surrounding communities from becoming “toxic waste dumps of the drug trade.”
We represent those communities and the police who have sworn to protect them. While we wholeheartedly share the desire to tackle the devastating illegal drug crisis, consumption sites will only make the problem worse. By creating law-free zones for illegal drug use, the sites will inevitably attract vultures who sell those drugs and promote further addiction. The predictable concentration of the illegal drug trade around these facilities will further ravage the communities that Congress specifically intended to protect. As rival dealers fight for turf in the streets that surround the sites, law-abiding citizens and their children will be caught in the crossfire. And, as more and more illegal drugs flood into these communities, it will become more and more difficult for law enforcement to protect them.
Supporters of supervised injection sites ignore the anarchy their proposal would unleash. Even setting aside the use of illegal drugs within the consumption sites, no one has explained how drug laws would be enforced (or not enforced) in the areas surrounding the consumption sites. Will police be instructed to look the other way? Will they be forced to play an endless game of whack-a-mole, arresting the dealers who will prey upon those traveling to and from the consumption sites? Will anyone be able to protect the sites’ neighbors from the theft and vandalism that inevitably accompanies the explosion of illegal drug use in a certain area? Those are precisely the problems that Congress consciously sought to prevent.
While supporters of supervised injection sites search for loopholes to evade federal law, we simply ask for the law to be enforced according to its plain meaning and purpose. Our communities are already suffering from the illegal drug crisis. Rather than promoting further drug use and concentrating it into a handful of unfortunate neighborhoods, we should use our resources to fight the real problem through additional prevention and recovery programs and by increasing support for law enforcement in the affected areas.
John McNesby is president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #5. Shannon Farrell is the head of the Harrowgate Civic Association.
Applying the so-called “crack-house statute” to the debate over whether to allow supervised injection sites is an archaic and inappropriate impediment to public health. That law was not written to halt lifesaving public health interventions for drug addiction, nor is it part of an effective strategy to confront the overdose crisis.
The statute is a relic of an embarrassing time in our history when long prison sentences were prioritized over solutions that address the root causes of crime. Rolling back the criminal justice policies of the 1980s in favor of more practical, ethical policies is an undertaking that people from both sides of the aisle have been tirelessly collaborating on. That partnership alone illustrates the potential to quickly reverse the overdose epidemic.
Like many criminal laws authored in the tough-on-crime era, the crack-house statute was written under the false assumption that harsher punishments for drug crimes would result in less drug use. I spent more than three decades locking people up for drugs. Trust me — it doesn’t help. It drives police mad to spend our whole shift looking for people using drugs — like trying to catch a ghost — while serious crimes are put on the back burner. And it leaves people with addiction without the support they need to get their lives back on track. This approach costs us all precious resources while getting no closer to reducing addiction or overdose deaths.
The benefits of supervised injection sites are well-established by the nearly 100 such programs operating around the world. Supervised injection sites have a 100% success rate at reversing overdoses. There has not been a single reported death in any facility worldwide. They also increase contact between service providers and people who use drugs by providing a safe, judgment-free place to use.
Criminalization and stigma push drug users, particularly those who inject, into hiding, which makes connecting folks to treatment and support all that more difficult. We can’t help people if they feel unsafe exposing themselves as drug users or worry they might be forced into treatment, which is ineffective and potentially harmful. The American Medical Association endorses supervised injection sites because they reduce overdose deaths, the spread of infectious diseases (caused by sharing syringes), and increase access to drug treatment without causing an increase in local drug trafficking or crime.
Our communities’ emergency services are already strapped for resources; responding to dozens of overdose calls each day isn’t effective. Right now, EMS respond to call after call and arrive at the scene of one overdose after another, often too late. If they manage to arrive in time, first responders can use naloxone to revive the person, but the window of time when revival is possible isn’t long enough to save everyone. Relying on emergency services alone is killing people while emotionally and logistically burdening our brave EMS providers, whose daily reality is shaped by the policies in question.
I hope the courts looking at U.S. v. Safehouse will examine the evidence: Supervised injection sites save lives and public resources. We’re long overdue to challenge the crack-house statute’s validity in preventing this necessary public health intervention. I’m proud to support these programs and look forward to seeing the first one in America open its doors.
Major Neill Franklin (Ret.) is a 34-year veteran of the Baltimore City Police and Maryland State Police Departments. He’s the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, judges, and other law enforcement professionals who promote evidence-based solutions to critical public safety issues.