Federal judge rules first U.S. supervised opioid injection site is legal

Federal judge rules first U.S. supervised opioid injection site is legal
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A Pennsylvania federal judge ruled Wednesday that a nonprofit’s plan to open the nation’s first safe injection site does not violate federal law.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh is a blow to the Justice Department, which sought to prevent Safehouse from opening “consumption rooms,” which provide safe places for drug users to inject using sterile equipment under the supervision of medically trained staff.

The lawsuit against Safehouse and its executive director was the first of its kind in the nation. But McHugh ruled that Safehouse’s plan does not violate the Controlled Substances Act, and that it does not facilitate illegal drug use.

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“Safehouse plans to make a place available for the purposes of reducing the harm of drug use, administering medical care, encouraging drug treatment, and connecting participants with social services. None of these purposes can be understood as a purpose to facilitate drug use,” McHugh wrote.

Supervised injection sites exist elsewhere in the world, but the ruling allows the first one in the U.S. to move forward. Supervised injection sites are intended to prevent opioid users from sharing contaminated needles.  

Safehouse employees would not provide users with drugs, but would have sterile equipment for users, as well as medical professionals standing by to provide care if needed, including the anti-overdose drug naloxone. 

Philadelphia officials, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, gave Safehouse the green light to open the facilities last summer as a way to try to combat the city’s opioid epidemic.

The Justice Department’s lawsuit claimed Safehouse would violate a section of the Controlled Substances Act intended to close crack houses. 

William McSwain, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, had argued that Safehouse’s plan was “in your face illegal” and suggested the organization try to change the law through the “normal democratic process,” rather than challenging the law by trying to open a safe injection site.   

In a statement, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said the Justice Department is "disappointed" in the ruling "and will take all available steps to pursue further judicial review."

Rosen warned that "[a]ny attempt to open illicit drug injection sites in other jurisdictions while this case is pending will continue to be met with immediate action by the Department.”

However, McHugh noted that Congress did not consider safe injection sites when it passed the law.

“Congress here determined that making places available to facilitate drug use, supporting the drug market as crack houses and raves do, warranted moral condemnation and punishment,” McHugh wrote. 

“Congress has not had the opportunity to decide whether such moral condemnation and punishment should extend to consumption facilities that are components of medical efforts to facilitate drug treatment,” he said.