As COVID-19 Exacerbates the Overdose Crisis, Federal Government Continues to Fight Efforts to Save Lives by Appealing United States v. Safehouse Decision
Philadelphia, PA - Last week, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) submitted an amicus brief, which the American Medical Association (AMA) signed on to, in support of Safehouse being able to establish a supervised consumption site (SCS) in Philadelphia. The community-based organization is currently fending off an appeal by the federal government in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to an earlier February 25, 2020 ruling that cleared the path for the site to legally open, making it the first in the U.S. to do so and potentially setting a legal precedent for others to follow.
“The Department of Justice is dead wrong in its attempt to prevent this facility from opening and additional lives may be lost because of this misguided action, especially now as we are seeing overdoses surge amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Lindsay LaSalle, Managing Director of Public Health Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance. “There are volumes of studies based on decades of research supporting the efficacy of safe consumption sites and demonstrating that clients are more likely to seek treatment services in these environments. In filing this brief, we want to ensure that the court has information based in science and proven practices that have saved countless lives elsewhere and—if the federal government would stop standing in the way—do the same here.”
With more than 67,000 dying from accidental overdose in 2018 alone, and COVID-19 now exacerbating this crisis, SCSs—if allowed to legally operate in the United States—could potentially save thousands of lives.
In February 2019, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William M. McSwain, filed the initial action seeking a declaratory judgment that Safehouse was in violation of the so-called “crack house” statute, making it illegal to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place…for the purpose of…using any controlled substance.” This represented the first instance where the court had tried to interpret and apply the statute.
In July 2019, DPA led an extensive amicus brief effort on behalf of numerous organizations and individuals representing public health, criminal justice, law enforcement, faith, homelessness, and impacted families and communities supporting Safehouse in its attempt to open the facility. And in February 2020, the federal judge rightly ruled that the proposed site would not violate the statute, clearing the way for Safehouse to open.
SCSs, also known as safe injection facilities or overdose prevention centers, are a proven approach in mitigating drug-related fatalities that offer clean, controlled settings for people to consume pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of trained professionals that can intervene in case of an overdose. In addition to providing access to sterile consumption equipment and supervised consumption, clients can also receive health care, counseling, and referrals to health and social services, including drug treatment.
Currently there are more than 120 SCSs operating worldwide. Research indicates that SCSs have consistently led to fewer overdose deaths among clients, increased client enrollment in drug treatment services, and reduced nuisances associated with public injection, such as discarded needles and public intoxication. Over the past several years, DPA has led the effort to authorize and implement SCSs nationwide, including active involvement in introducing state SCS legislation in California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont.
Legally authorized SCSs were first introduced in Europe in the 1980s and have been operating in Canada since 2003. Currently, there are no such legal facilities operating in the United States, despite the urgent need presented by the current overdose crisis. Absent state approval, various cities have approved SCS implementation at the local level including New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Learn more about the need to bring SCS into U.S. communities at drugpolicy.org/SCS.