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Judge: Planned Supervised Injection Site Does Not Violate Federal Drug Laws


It would be a new kind of medical facility, the first ever in the United States - a place where drug users could inject illegal opioids as a nurse watches to prevent overdoses. And according to a federal judge, this facility, called a safe injection site, would not be illegal under federal law. That was the ruling yesterday after the Department of Justice tried to block a proposed safe injection site from opening in Philadelphia. Other cities and towns across the country have been watching this case closely, eager for new tools and ideas to fight the deadly and ongoing national opioid epidemic.

Nina Feldman reports for station WHYY in Philadelphia. She's been covering this and joins me now. Nina, good morning.


GREENE: So Nina, what were the judge's conclusions here?

FELDMAN: So Judge Gerald McHugh's job was very narrow in scope. It was up to him to decide whether a specific statute in the U.S. Controlled Substances Act - the so-called crack house statute, applied to Safehouse. That's the name of the supervised injection facility here. So the statute says that it's illegal to maintain a site for the purpose of using drugs there.

And the United States attorney argued that Safehouse is exactly that: it's a place designed to use drugs. But what Safehouse says is, no, our purpose is saving lives. Using drugs is sort of incidental to that purpose. And we're not trying to facilitate drug use. We're trying to help people stay alive. And the judge bought that argument.

GREENE: Well, what have studies shown about that very question? I mean, these facilities are open in Canada and Europe. I mean, what does the research suggest about what, if anything, they accomplish?

FELDMAN: Yeah, studies have shown that supervised injection sites can drive down fatal overdoses. No one has ever died in one of these sites because there's someone there standing by if somebody does overdose. They're credited with restricting the spread of infectious diseases. And advocates say facilities help move people into treatment.

GREENE: So I know that there are differing views about this, though. And I'm wondering - I mean, let's think about the city of Philadelphia, where this whole debate over this facility is happening. How are people feeling about this?

FELDMAN: It's been a heated issue in Kensington, the neighborhood where this proposed site would likely go. That's the neighborhood where there's lot of open-air drug use, and it's the epicenter of Philadelphia's opioid epidemic. And neighbors there say putting a site here would all but ensure that the drug dealing and the violence that can go along with drug dealing stays in their neighborhood. So some of them are really opposed to it.

But others were really excited to hear about the decision. I talked to 28-year-old Izzy Harper, who lives here in Philadelphia and, last year, lost her younger sister to an opioid overdose. Her sister died home alone on her couch, and their younger brother found her there.

IZZY HARPER: You need someone there to save you. And that's why Eliza died - because she died alone on the couch. There was no one there to save her.

GREENE: Wow - powerful voice in favor of facilities like this. So Nina, what does this mean now? I mean, can other cities start opening facilities like Safehouse now after this decision?

FELDMAN: Not quite yet. So this isn't a final decision. It was a ruling on this very narrow legal argument, which the federal government has said it will appeal. But it's likely that if court proceedings do drag on, Safehouse will request special permission to open in the meantime. And given the judge's ruling yesterday, he seemed inclined to grant that permission.

So I think what today's ruling says to cities around the country who've been watching Philadelphia is that the reach of the federal government is limited here. And if local jurisdictions are supportive of these sites, they might be quite a bit more emboldened to start exploring that option.

GREENE: Nina Feldman reports for member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks, Nina.

FELDMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Feldman