Medical supplies at Vancouver’s supervised injection facility

Philadelphia’s supervised injection site is on indefinite hold after the judge whose decision greenlighted the facility earlier this year put things on pause.

If and when Safehouse does open, its first location will likely not be in South Philly as originally planned. The nonprofit’s leaders tell Billy Penn they’re looking to launch operations in the Kensington neighborhood instead.

In response to a request from the federal Justice Department, U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh earlier this week granted a stay to the finding he released in February, which stated that an injection site would not violate federal law. In his new order, McHugh said now is not the right time for something new, positing that the “nerves of citizens are frayed by fear and uncertainty.”

McHugh’s stay effectively puts the legality of such a site up in the air until the appeal process plays out. The proposed facility had drawn intense and dramatic opposition from some South Philadelphia neighbors, who didn’t want it in their community.

Safehouse VP Ronda Goldfein said that pending court approval, the org will refocus its efforts on opening a Kensington supervised injection site instead.

“I think that’s what makes sense, because we’re in an era of limited resources,” Goldfein told Billy Penn. “There are various ways you can start a new initiative…smaller, with a more manageable start, or you can put your store right where the food desert is.”

The desert, in this case, is Kensington — the Philadelphia neighborhood considered the epicenter of the city’s opioid epidemic.

Goldfein wouldn’t say whether Safehouse had identified any specific locations that would work, and emphasized it won’t move forward while the legal process plays out.

Still, she thinks things could move pretty quickly. “We’re optimistic that we may have an argument on this case by the fall,” Goldfein said.

An uproar in South Philly

In Philadelphia, the debate over the legality of a supervised injection site has been a long and winding road.

Judge McHugh’s February ruling that paved the way for the site to open was based on the idea that its purpose was to save lives — not encourage drug use. “There is nothing procedurally improper in granting the declaratory relief sought by Safehouse,” McHugh wrote.

The next day, Goldfein announced at Safehouse board member Ed Rendell’s Center City office that they intended to open a site at the Constitution Health Plaza at Broad and McKean.

And then… everyone freaked out. A few South Philly neighbors came to the press conference and aired their grievances, calling Rendell a “sneak” for neglecting to inform the community in advance.

With all that vocal opposition, the building’s owner got cold feet and pulled out of the deal.

So the Safehouse team voluntarily put the South Philadelphia site on pause. Meanwhile, as expected, U.S. Attorney William McSwain filed a speedy motion for a stay.

Safehouse leaders still optimistic

A staunch opponent of injection sites, the federal prosecutor argued that the it would violate 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.

“What Safehouse proposes is a radical experiment that would invite thousands of people onto its property for the purpose of injecting illegal drugs,” McSwain said in a February statement.

McHugh granted McSwain’s requested stay this week not because he changed his mind on the site’s legality, but on the grounds that amid protests and a pandemic, Philly couldn’t handle something new right now.

“The operation of Safehouse would represent a significant change in how the city responds to opioid abuse, and such change would necessarily be disruptive,” McHugh wrote in his Tuesday ruling.

For Goldfein, the decision is a disappointment, but not a huge blow. The Safehouse board had already halted its immediate plans for a site. For now, she’s just grateful the judge hasn’t expressed a change of mind on the site’s public health benefits.

“If the court says Philadelphia is too frayed, we’re not going to challenge that,” Goldfein said. “Do I think Philadelphians are more resilient? I do. The opioid epidemic has taken its toll on everyone, and people are looking for relief. But I’m not a federal court judge, so I don’t get to decide.”

The Safehouse legal team plans to file a response on Monday, which will kickstart the appeal process.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...