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Opioid Drugs

Safehouse Injection Site to Open in Philadelphia with Court’s Blessing

— March 2, 2020

Safehouse gets go-ahead to open the first U.S.-based supervised injection site.

Ronda Goldfein, Safehouse Vice President and co-founder who is leading the nonprofit’s project in Philadelphia, has announced the company will open the first supervised injection site in the United States despite a two-year pushback from the Department of Justice and other parties who believe it will be detrimental to the surrounding area.  Safehouse’s statement comes one day after a U.S. district judge issued a final ruling on an October 2019 decision indicating the facility does not violate federal drug laws.

Similar sites are already operating in Canada and Europe.  At these sites, substance users bring their own drugs and self-administer them under supervision of medical personnel who have Naloxone if needed.  Safehouse said “the initiative is aimed at saving lives and providing a bridge to treatment amid a worsening opioid crisis.”

“Philadelphia, like the nation, is in an overdose crisis,” Goldfein stated. “With yesterday’s decision, we now have the legal authority to open Safehouse.  This is a medical model.”

Bill McSwain, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Pennsylvania, will appeal the court’s decision.  He said, “What Safehouse proposes is a radical experiment that would invite thousands of people onto its property for the purpose of injecting illegal drugs.  Safehouse should act prudently and not rush to open while the appeal is pending.  But if it does rush forward, my Office will evaluate all options available under the law.”

Safehouse Injection Site to Open in Philadelphia with Court's Blessing
Photo by Patrick Lanza on Unsplash

Prosecutors had previously argued, “The plan violates a provision of the Controlled Substances Act that makes it illegal to own a property where drugs are being used.”  But, this argument was rejected.

“The ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it,” U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh wrote in his original opinion recently finalized. “Viewed objectively, what Safehouse proposes is far closer to the harm reduction strategies expressly endorsed by Congress.”

“We have the highest death rate of any big city in America,” Goldfein said. “Three times that of Chicago, which is No. 2, and five times that of New York, which is No 3.  Three to five people die of overdose every day in Philadelphia.”  Safehouse plans to open right in the center of the state’s crisis, in Kensington.

Leighanne Savloff, a South Philadelphia resident, interrupted Goldfein as she was talking and accused the group of failing to ask the community for its support. “You blindsided us,” Savloff said. “You don’t sit there and live in that community.  You don’t take your kids to the day care like I do.  I care about what my children have to see at six and ten years old that I have to explain hard drug addiction.  This is unacceptable.  And you were a sneak about it.” Volunteers, including the former governor, are planning to escort users to the facility, to help shield what’s going on.

“Even if it saves 25 lives, it’s worth it,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Safehouse board member. “Saving a life is so important, especially when you balance against the downside, which I think is very small.  It’s our intention to have Safehouse in a number of locations throughout the city.”

Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University who studies supervised injection sites, said, “There are more than 200 of the facilities around the world…I think this will have broad ramifications.  There are places around the country including Seattle, Boston, Denver, New York, where people have been closely watching these developments.  One of the key arguments against advocates is that the law is not settled, and that the legal implications are unclear.  Well, that argument just suffered a setback.”


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