U.S. Attorney files lawsuit against Safehouse safe injection site

Federal prosecutors say the site would violate controlled substance laws.

Debbie R. Howland, a mother who lost her daughter Ava to a drug overdose, was one of many Kensington community leaders who protested the office of U.S. Attorney William McSwain on Feb. 6 in response to the federal lawsuit against Safehouse. | DYLAN LONG / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Federal prosecutors filed a civil lawsuit against Safehouse, the Philadelphia nonprofit that is attempting to open the nation’s first safe injection site, maintaining the site would violate substance laws.

Larry Kaiser, the president and CEO of Temple University Health System and dean of the Lewis Katz School of Medicine, serves on the Safehouse advisory board. Kaiser declined to comment on the lawsuit.

William McSwain, a U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, put forward the suit on Feb. 5,  calling for the U.S. District Court to declare safe injection sites illegal under federal law. A supervised injection site would violate a section of the Controlled Substances Act, which makes it illegal to manage or control a place that is available for people to use controlled substances in.

“Drug injection sites undoubtedly do violate the law,” McSwain said during a press conference on Feb. 6. “And because it is the Department’s job to promote and enforce the rule of law, not to look the other way.”

“If Safehouse wants to operate an injection site, it should work through the democratic process to try to change the law,” McSwain added.

A representative from Temple University Hospital said Kaiser serves on the advisory board as an individual, and not on behalf of the Health System.

Ronda Goldfein, the vice president of Safehouse’s board of directors, said since Safehouse began, the U.S. Attorney has made clear that he believes safe injection sites are illegal.

“Safehouse believes that supervised consumption sites are legal and save lives,” the organization’s website reads. “We welcome the opportunity to present to the court the credible evidence and research that has informed our belief.”

“We think being in court is an important step in the initiative,” Goldfein said.

The website also states that the nonprofit will continue to move forward to find funding and a location for the site.  Goldfein told The Temple News in October that the safe injection site could save lives.

“Having eyes on a person is the best way to get them quick and efficient emergency attention,” Goldfein said. “What we are doing now is not working. If we can prevent fatalities, shouldn’t we try?”

Philadelphia officials evaluated the effectiveness of safe injection sites using fatality data from the area around a site in Vancouver, Canada. McSwain said the study’s results do not mean safe injection sites will work in the United States.

“It is uncertain how relevant or applicable the assumptions are to communities in other geographies,” Mcswain said.

Goldfein argued safe injection sites would be universally effective.

“It is a well documented, successful public health intervention,” Goldfein said. “It has worked in 120 countries around the world. There isn’t any reason why people in Philadelphia can’t get the same type of relief that we’re seeing in Switzerland, France, Portugal, Australia and Canada.

Safehouse supporters and members of the Philadelphia Harm Reduction Coalition, a group dedicated to representing individuals who use drugs and promoting harm reduction, protested the lawsuit in the lobby of the U.S. Attorney’s office on Chestnut Street near 7th during the press conference. David Tomilson, a coalition member, said a safe injection site in Philadelphia is not the only solution for the opioid crisis, but it is still a solution.

“It’s just one thing that can be done to help end this problem,” he said.

“I don’t know what other evidence you need other than no single person has ever died in a prevention site and we had 1,217 [overdose] deaths in 2017,” Tomilson said.

Will Bleier contributed reporting.

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