Court rules Safehouse can open, but COVID-19 delays progress.
In 2019, Philadelphia had 1,150 drug-overdose-related deaths, 80 percent of them from opioids and most from the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Amid COVID-19, the crisis has only worsened with more than 35 states reporting increases in opioid-related deaths, according to the American Medical Association (AMA), which published a report in late July citing “increases in opioid-related mortality – particularly from illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.” Advocates say it’s time to take action.
Across the nation, overdoses were up by 42 percent in May, although not all of them were fatal, according to the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP). ODMAP’s June report indicated “a 17.59 percent increase in overdoses reported during the period of stay-at-home orders, March 19 to May 19.” Over “61 percent of participating ODMAP counties” had increases.
In Philadelphia, harm reduction advocates and the city’s district attorney, along with other allies of the nonprofit group Safehouse, are pushing for the organization to open the country’s first government-sanctioned supervised injection site. There are already more than 100 safe injection sites around the world. In Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, the safe injection Insite has been in business for more than ten years. Insite is run by Vancouver Coastal Health.
“This is a prime example of why we need Safehouse,” Rosalind Pichardo, founder of the nonprofit Operation Save Our City, said, speaking of the current crisis.
Safehouse was finally scheduled to open its doors in March after a federal judge ruled that opening the site “didn’t violate the crack house statute,” a federal law which makes it “illegal to operate any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance.” The judge said the law wouldn’t “apply to Safehouse’s overdose-prevention cause,” writing that “the ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it.” But not all residents were happy about the opening and a “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) argument ensued.
“Safe injection sites, in our opinion, are not going to solve the problem of the opioid crisis,” said Anthony Giordano, who started an anti-Safehouse Facebook group. “This site was going to bring crime into our neighborhood. There was going to be drug dealers in our neighborhood. There was children walking around.”
The U.S. attorney’s office in Pennsylvania also opposed opening Safehouse and appealed the ruling. In June, however, the judgement was granted a stay, which indefinitely postponed the opening due to the pandemic.
“It’s important to point out that the judge, in his opinion, said that he stands by his analysis that it’s a legal activity,” said Ronda Goldfein, vice president of Safehouse’s board of directors. “He did not say, ‘I changed my mind on legality.’ He did not say, ‘The research doesn’t support this.’ He simply said, ‘Not now.’”
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, one of the Safehouse advocates, said the injection site is urgently needed. “Every day, we are at risk of an overdose that may occur on the street that would not have occurred inside of the supervised injection facility or a harm reduction center,” he said.
“Philadelphia, like the nation, is in an overdose crisis,” Goldfein stated. “In the ideal world, we would have been able to open in one neighborhood and then quickly open in another neighborhood and then open in a third neighborhood. We still believe that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed in multiple sites throughout Philadelphia.”