Philly’s Safehouse to open nation’s first supervised injection site after judge clearance

A ruling on Tuesday gave the nonprofit the green light to launch in South Philadelphia.

What it looks like inside one of Vancouver's supervised injection facilities

What it looks like inside one of Vancouver's supervised injection facilities

Elana Gordon / WHYY
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday afternoon that the nonprofit Safehouse would not violate federal law by opening an overdose prevention site. The legal memorandum clears the way for the nation’s first supervised injection facility to open in Philadelphia.

Safehouse leaders aren’t wasting any time. The nonprofit plans to open its first site in South Philly — soon.

The new site is expected to open inside the Constitution Health Plaza at the corner of Broad and McKean streets.

“It’s important to us that people have safe and confidential overdose prevention services and that the neighbors are not disturbed,” Safehouse VP Ronda Goldfein told Billy Penn. “For these reasons, we will not disclose the addresses of any our sites.”

As anticipated, U.S. Attorney William McSwain began the appeal process in court on Wednesday. A staunch opponent of Safehouse, the federal prosecutor argued that the proposed safe injection site violated a section of the Controlled Substances Act known as the “crackhouse” statute. The 1980s legislation makes it a felony to open a facility with the intent to manufacture, distribute or use any controlled substance.

In his Tuesday ruling, U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh said McSwain’s “focus on factual nuances overlooks the complexity of determining the proper application of the law,” noting that Safehouse would not be hiding illegal substances on its campus.

“There is nothing procedurally improper in granting the declaratory relief sought by Safehouse,” wrote Judge McHugh.

In the memo, the judge also poked holes in the prosecutor’s assertion that Safehouse would not be breaking the law if it operated a mobile site — but that allowing drug users into a building violated the “crackhouse” statute.

“We respectfully disagree with the District Court’s ruling and plan to appeal immediately,” McSwain said in a statement. “What Safehouse proposes is a radical experiment that would invite thousands of people onto its property for the purpose of injecting illegal drugs. In our view, this would plainly violate the law and we look forward to presenting our case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.”

McSwain’s next shot at an appeal would be to the U.S. Supreme Court.

McHugh’s statement affirms his earlier ruling from October that the Philly endeavor would not violate the federal statute by providing a space for people to use drugs under medical supervision.

That earlier ruling wasn’t quite enough to give the nonprofit the full green light, so in January — despite the threat of an impending appeal from McSwain — the Safehouse team asked for explicit approval to open a supervised injection site. That’s what McHugh handed down on Tuesday.

The nonprofit needs more than just a legal blessing to open. Specifically, Safehouse still needs to secure some money and a physical location — both efforts that board member and former Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell said had been hampered by the site’s pending legality.

Last month, the nonprofit only had $200,000 in the bank, Goldfein confirmed — a fraction of the projected annual $1 million annual operating costs for the facility.

As far as location is concerned, Goldfein said the nonprofit is readying multiple sites.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has encouraged the overdose prevention site to open within the existing Kensington nonprofit Prevention Point.

On both these fronts, today’s decision could indicate a turning point. With a federal stamp of approval, Safehouse leadership can seriously pursue financial investments and physical locations for a site.

Should Safehouse open before the appeal process plays out, McSwain has vowed to shut it down. Despite the legal roadblocks, the nonprofit has provided several clues as to how its proposed facilities would operate.

In an evidentiary hearing last summer, Safehouse president Jose Benitez outlined how Philly’s overdose prevention site would actually work. The process would include a brief registration process, a health assessment, supervised consumption and a “motivational moment” during which time staff members would encourage treatment.

Since then, more details have come to light. The city released a security plan last week, revealing that the Philadelphia Police Department will work to prevent an increase in illicit drug sales in the immediate vicinity of Safehouse’s site or sites.

Safehouse also intends to kick in volunteer escorts, who are already undergoing training to accompany staff and patients inside the site to protect them from protestors and federal law enforcement agents.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, South Philly neighbors expressed their fury that Safehouse never once held a community meeting to warn the neighborhood that this was coming.

“You blindsided us, you blindsided South Philly,” said South Philadelphia resident Leighanne Savlof. “You never came into our community. You never talked to us. You don’t come to our meetings. When we had a meeting about crime, where were you?”

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