Judge Paves Way for Nation's 1st Supervised Injection Site in South Philly

A federal judge has cleared the way for the nation's first supervised injection site for opioid users opening in Philadelphia

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EDITOR"S NOTE: Operators of the nonprofit Safehouse spoke Wednesday about their plans, defending South Philadelphia as the first location. That story is FOUND HERE.

A federal judge in Philadelphia issued a final ruling Tuesday that paves the way for a nonprofit group to open the nation's first supervised injection site to combat the city's opioid epidemic.

United States District Court Judge Gerald A. McHugh entered a final order Tuesday on his ruling last year that the nonprofit Safehouse's proposal to open an injection site in Philadelphia does not violate federal law.

Philadelphia councilman Mark Squilla told NBC10 the site will open inside the Constitution Health Plaza at the corner of Broad and McKean streets in South Philadelphia.

"We are really frustrated," Squilla said. "We are angry. We are aggravated. We feel the administration needs to step up."

Squilla said the site will be near a school.

"This site is actually in council member Johnson's district," he said. "So it's right across the street from my district. Both of us were unaware they were going to be opening this up very shortly. That's without any input from the community about how it's going to operate. What's going to happen."

Before the ruling, Ronda Goldfein, who is on the board of Safehouse, said they planned to open despite an expected appeal from the Department of Justice.

"We plan to open once we have authority to do so," she said. "Unless a court rules otherwise, parties are permitted to move forward despite an appeal pending."

Safehouse had considered more than two dozen locations around Philadelphia. The group said the goal was to open more sites throughout the city where people can use heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs under medical supervision, with staffers able to intervene in case of an overdose.

"Neighborhoods most greatly impacted by overdose are our top priority," Goldfein said. "And as a privately supported nonprofit, funding will always be a challenge."

Longtime South Philly resident and community leader Jody Della Barba told NBC10 she was blindsided after hearing the site would open in her neighborhood.

"I don't think that the mayor thought this out and what it's going to do to South Philadelphia," Barba said. "And then maybe he did. Maybe he doesn't care."

Safehouse had been in negotiations to open the site in Kensington, a neighborhood known as the center of Philadelphia's opioid crisis. Councilwoman Maria Quinones told NBC10 Kensington is off the table for now though she also said that could change.

U.S. Attorney William McSwain filed a motion last year to stop Safehouse from opening a site, arguing that supervised injections sites violate federal drug laws and would only further plunge Philadelphia into an opioid crisis.

Of particular focus in the argument was statute 856, also known as the "crack house" statute, which makes it illegal to "knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place … for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance."

The Department of Justice said Tuesday they planned on appealing the ruling.

"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."

A timeline has not yet been set for the appeal.

Safehouse argues that allowing illegal drug use on its property will help prevent overdoses. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who sits on Safehouse's board, all support the proposed site.

"We applaud the Court's affirmation of its earlier ruling that Safehouse doesn't violate the federal statute," Kenney said in a statement.

The issue has divided public officials in Philadelphia and around the nation, although similar sites are in use in Canada and Europe. Supervised injection sites are also being considered in other U.S. cities including Seattle, New York, San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts.

Philadelphia has the highest opioid death rate of any large U.S. city, with more than 1,000 deaths per year.

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