Federal Judge Okays Philadelphia “Safe Injection Zone”

Over objections from the United States Attorney, who argued the setup violated federal drug laws, a federal judge has upheld a Philadelphia nonprofit’s planned “supervised site” for intravenous drug users.

In a much-watched case, a federal judge has sided with nonprofits seeking to establish, conforming to state laws, a “supervised injection site” for drug users in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The court sign-off comes despite opposition from the federal government, who argued that the harm reduction plan implicitly violated federal drug prohibitions.

From coverage in the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. Attorney William McSwain argued the nonprofit Safehouse would violate what is often called the “crack house statute,” a component of a 1986 antidrug law that makes it illegal to knowingly host illicit drug use and other drug-related activity. This concept had been untested in federal court, but legal observers said the law’s language was broad enough to potentially aid the government’s case.

Safehouse lawyers argued the nonprofit aimed to help people in a way not contemplated when the law passed 33 years ago.

“The ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it,” U.S. District Judge Gerald Austin McHugh wrote in a 56-page opinion.

A Philadelphia Inquirer story gave some perspective into the judge’s rationale:

His decision will shape the legal debate surrounding supervised injection sites in several U.S. cities that are also considering, and in some cases have authorized, the opening of such facilities.

“No credible argument can be made that facilities such as safe injection sites were in the contemplation of Congress either when it adopted [the crack house statute],” he wrote.

It’s not clear how quickly Safehouse may open an operation in Philadelphia, or whether the Justice Department plans to appeal.

Read a related FAQ article from the Inquirer about the program’s operational concept.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties