opioid epidemic

Opioid Injection Site Needed ‘Now More Than Ever': Legal Battle Rages on Amid Crises

Dozens of supporters and opponents have filed briefs with a federal appeals court weighing the right to open a supervised opioids injection site in Philadelphia.

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A supervised injection site for opioid users in Philadelphia, which has already received approval from a federal judge, is now in the middle of a national tug-of-war as an appellate court weighs its future.

Numerous court briefs in support of and opposition to the facility have been filed recently. Supporters include attorneys general for nine states while among the opponents are a group of U.S. senators and congressmen, including Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Safehouse, the non-profit organization planning to open the injection site, also filed a response June 29 to an appeal by U.S. Attorney Williams McSwain with Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

McSwain has asked the appellate court to overturn a federal judge's ruling last year that Safehouse is allowed to open a supervised injection site.

Safehouse hit a wall shortly after its victory in front of U.S. Judge Timothy McHugh when its plan to open a facility in South Philadelphia fell through amid pushback from residents and local elected officials.

Then in June, McHugh issued an order putting his ruling on hold while the Third Circuit considered McSwain's appeal. That means no site can open for now.

McHugh cited the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing protests roiling Philadelphia as reasons for his order, saying it is "the wrong moment for another change to the status quo."

The two crises for months have dominated the local and national discussion. Opioid deaths topped 2,300 in Philadelphia in 2018 and 2019.

Attorney Ronda Goldfein, vice president of the nonprofit, said Wednesday that Safehouse does not have any new locations in the works and that the group is currently developing plans for how to open an injection site safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic if the Third Circuit upholds the lower court's ruling.

She added that she agrees with the ardent support from leaders in other states, as well as local officials like Mayor Jim Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner, who believe an injection site should remain a priority.

“I think Philadelphians are more resilient. Not withstanding the considerable challenges facing the city as a result of the pandemic and protests calling for police reforms, the opioid crisis continues," Goldfein told NBC10. "We need to add that service (of an injection site)."

Kenney and his health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, were among Safehouse supporters who this week filed amicus briefs with the Third Circuit.

"While Philadelphia has been facing unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19 and civil unrest, in the Mayor’s and Health Commissioner’s judgment, an overdose prevention site can be implemented despite these challenges," according to the brief filed July 6. "If anything, the City needs an overdose prevention site today more than ever to free up EMS and health care resources for COVID patients."

Another brief in support of Safehouse was filed by attorneys general of California, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia and District of Columbia.

"That really puts into context how this is a far bigger issue than Philadelphia. It really showed that just like in Philadelphia, they are trying to find out a way to save their people," Goldfein said. "You have all these communities, communities writ large, all these states trying to solve this problem."

McSwain, a Republican appointed by President Donald Trump who has tussled with progressive and liberal officials in heavily Democratic southeastern Pennsylvania over law enforcement policy, received support from Toomey and other members of Congress among briefs filed last month.

He said in an inteview Wednesday that "this time right now during the pandemic is not a good time to open injection sites."

William McSwain
U.S. Attorney William McSwain of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The amicus brief filed by Toomey and other members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Oklahoma, said: "Whether Safehouse’s proposed activities are sufficiently beneficial to outweigh the costs to the surrounding citizens, neighborhoods, communities, and property of permitting unlawful drug use to take root at a fixed location is a policy decision within the competence of Congress, not the federal courts."

McSwain must now file a reply to the June 29 Safehouse response. There is no timeline for that filing. The Third Circuit could rule on the case based on written briefs, or it could schedule oral arguments later this year.

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