The U.S. attorney in Philadelphia and a high-powered nonprofit are embroiled in a legal battle over the organization’s plans to open a supervised drug injection site to try to rein in the city’s raging opioid crisis.
U.S. Attorney William McSwain said Wednesday that his decision to challenge the effort by the group Safehouse to open the first-in the-nation drug injection site was a matter of following federal law.
“Normalizing the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl is not the answer to solving the epidemic,” McSwain said.
The issue is especially critical for Philadelphia, which has the highest opioid death rate of any large U.S. city with more than 1,000 deaths per year — nearly four times its homicide rate.
The data shows that substance use disorder is still widespread, but innovations in treatment, prescribing and awareness are helping.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has called the opioid crisis “the largest public health crisis this city has seen in a century.”
In its response to the federal effort to block the center, Safehouse argued in court papers filed Wednesday that it would not be providing illicit drugs to its clients but instead would provide sterile equipment, counseling and access to medical care.
“This intervention will not solve the opioid crisis, but it will provide a critical life raft,” Safehouse told the court. It notes that in more than 30 years, not a single fatal overdose has been reported at any of the 120 similar sites that operate openly worldwide.
For its part, the federal prosecutors argue that Safehouse’s conduct is prohibited by federal law, and that “it does not matter that Safehouse claims good intentions in fighting the opioid epidemic.”
Safehouse, whose board includes such heavy hitters as former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, is trying to raise almost $2 million to open the injection site this spring in an open-air drug buying area north of downtown.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner says the aim was to provide aid at the center for people who face serious medical problems because of their drug use.
“We are not going to prosecute people who are trying to stop people from dying,” Krasner said after McSwain’s announcement. “We had 1,200 people die last year. I think it is inexcusable to play politics with their lives.”
Safehouse says its staff will include medically trained professionals, social workers, case managers and certified specialists in recovery techniques.
The staff will be trained in CPR and the administration of Naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opiod overdose, it said.
Safehouse plans to push ahead with its plans, despite the federal opposition, Rendell said.
“There’s no harm that comes from a facility like this, and if we save even on the low side, 25 lives . . . isn’t that worth it?” Rendell told The Washington Post. “The federal and state and city governments aren’t giving us any money. Where’s the harm?”
Rendell said last month Safehouse has been offered a building in the drug-infested Kensington area for $1 by a prominent developer whose son recently died from an ovedose,The Philadelphia Tribune reported.
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