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State Senate approves ban of supervised injection sites in Pa.

Pennsylvania's GOP-controlled state Senate passed a bipartisan bill to ban supervised injection sites anywhere in the state by a 41-9 vote. The legislation now moves to the House.

The state Senate has passed a bipartisan bill to ban supervised injection sites in Pennsylvania.
The state Senate has passed a bipartisan bill to ban supervised injection sites in Pennsylvania.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Senate voted Monday to stop any supervised injection sites from opening in the state, potentially creating a new hurdle for a nonprofit hoping to open one in Philadelphia.

The GOP-controlled state Senate passed a bipartisan bill, sponsored by State Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D., Philadelphia), to ban supervised injection sites anywhere in Pennsylvania by a 41-9 vote. The bill must pass the state House before reaching the desk of Gov. Josh Shapiro, who said he’d support banning supervised injection sites.

The legislation is the latest attempt by a state or federal government to intervene in a nonprofit’s attempt to open a supervised injection site in Philadelphia, which is widely seen as the epicenter of the opioid epidemic.

Tartaglione, who introduced Senate Bill 165 and represents parts of Kensington, said Monday on the Senate floor that her proposal will bring state law up-to-date with current federal laws. Furthermore, her constituents don’t want a supervised injection site opened in their community, she said.

“We need to fund harm reduction programs, I agree,” Tartaglione said. “But we need innovative ways of helping those struggling with addiction, without prolonging and allowing a system of state-sponsored addiction in Pennsylvania.”

Supervised injection sites, or supervised consumption sites, are spaces where people can use their own drugs under clinical supervision to prevent overdoses. Using drugs by oneself is a leading risk factor for fatal overdose — most overdose deaths in Philadelphia, for example, occur in private homes.

Such sites do not provide drugs to clients; instead, site staff provide sterile needles and other equipment for safer drug use, and monitor clients in case they exhibit overdose symptoms. If they do overdose, site staff will revive them, with either supplemental oxygen or the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

» READ MORE: Where each of the top contenders for Philly mayor stand on supervised-injection sites

Safehouse, the nonprofit that has spearheaded efforts to open a site in Philadelphia, has been embroiled in a legal battle over its plans since 2019, when then-U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain sued in federal court to block it from opening. A U.S. District Court judge sided with Safehouse, but the nonprofit lost on appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The nonprofit went back to U.S. District Court on a different legal argument.

Recently, Safehouse and the federal government have been engaged in settlement talks. Last month, a coalition of neighborhood groups urged a federal judge to hear their concerns before signing off on any agreement between the government and Safehouse. In a separate court filing, five Democratic state senators also raised misgivings, including Tartaglione.

State Sen. Nikil Saval (D., Philadelphia) has repeatedly opposed the ban, telling The Inquirer last week the proposal is a “mistake based on misconceptions and false pretenses.”

“It’s wrong that we move with such alacrity to prohibit one of the most effective harm reduction services we know, and do not move with such speed to legalize other harm reduction practices statewide” like syringe exchanges, which are still technically illegal under state law, he said.

Several syringe exchanges operate in Pennsylvania at the behest of local governments but are generally not prosecuted by state officials.

Saval said he hopes to dispel the assumption that supervised injection sites increase drug use and criminal activity. Instead, he emphasized their potential to keep people with substance use disorders alive and connect them with recovery services and health care, as well as the potential cost savings for the state by decreasing the number of 911 calls for overdoses.

However, the ban had significant bipartisan support — including from other Philly Democrats. State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia) said he supported the move in a committee meeting Monday, adding that he believes law enforcement costs would increase “were this group [Safehouse] allowed to move forward with a safe injection site.”

» READ MORE: How do sites for supervised drug use work? A primer.

Ronda Goldfein, the vice president of Safehouse, called the Senate action “premature to be looking at a statewide ban,” noting the more than 100 supervised injection sites opened internationally over the last 30 years.

The bill now goes to the House, which has a one-seat Democratic majority. Beth Rementer, a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery), did not commit to vote on the bill and said the Democratic caucus will review it once the legislation moves to the House.

Only two sites exist in the United States, both in New York City; staff there say that they have prevented hundreds of potentially fatal overdoses since opening in 2021. Internationally, supervised drug consumption sites operate in dozens of countries and have been shown to lower deaths from overdose.

New York City, which is in a different judicial district than Philadelphia, opened two sites last year with no pushback from federal officials. Rhode Island’s legislature legalized supervised injection sites in 2021 and recently announced plans to open sites next year. California’s legislature also approved a bill to allow these sites to open in some California cities and counties, but Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it.

State Sen. Art Haywood (D., Philadelphia) was among the nine Democrats who opposed the bill, but not because he supports safe injection sites, he told The Inquirer. He believes local governments should be able to decide what works for them.

“Local governments should be able to make these decisions,” Haywood said. “The state Senate should not be a ‘Super City Council.’ And I believe this is a ‘Super City Council’ kind of move. ... Not every local issue should be taken over by the state.”