The U.S. Attorney for the district covering Philadelphia is warning about the potential for a “literal street fight” as he seeks to halt the opening of a supervised injection site in the city.
U.S. Attorney William McSwain announced he will be appealing the ruling allowing the nonprofit Safehouse to open the nation’s first injection site in South Philadelphia. He also plans to file a motion asking that the injection site not open until the conclusion of the appeals process.
“Here, a stay would preserve the status quo while the Third Circuit [Court of Appeals] examines the legality of the proposed site, and would prevent the chaos that would occur should Safehouse lurch forward with an opening while the case is still ongoing,” McSwain said in a statement.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
Ilana Eisenstein, an attorney representing Safehouse, said in a statement that a safe injection site will help save lives as the city struggles with an opioid crisis and argued that McSwain should stop interfering.
"These are the hard local and neighborhood issues for Philadelphians to work out amongst themselves, not issues for the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court to resolve," she said.
United States District Court Judge Gerald A. McHugh entered a final order Tuesday on his ruling last year that Safehouse's proposal to open an injection site in Philadelphia does not violate federal law.
The site will open inside the Constitution Health Plaza at the corner of Broad and McKean streets in South Philadelphia, officials have said. The plaza holds both a school and a day care center.
The decision has caused an uproar among residents and local legislators. Attorney Ronda Goldfein, who serves on the Safehouse board, said a community meeting will be held in two weeks to address concerns.
"We have the highest death rate of any big city in America, three times that of Chicago, which is number two and five times that of New York, which is number three, and our numbers continue to rise," Goldfein said. “The 2019 death rate is expected to pass the death rate of 2018. Three to four people die of overdose every day in Philadelphia and with numbers like these, we are compelled to act."
The South Philadelphia site, chosen over a location in Kensington -- the epicenter of the city's opioid epidemic -- because of the nonprofit's current budget, would be the first of several across Philadelphia if all goes well, officials said.
"It’s our intention to have Safehouse in a number of areas around the city," former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who is on Safehouse's board of directors, said during a press conference Wednesday morning. "If all goes well, we will have a facility in Kensington [as well]."
McSwain filed a motion last year to stop Safehouse from opening a site, arguing that safe 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."
A Wednesday news conference by Safehouse officials led to residents and local elected officials voicing their displeasure, a fact that McSwain seized upon as he labeled the conference a “dumpster fire” and said the dispute could “deteriorate into a literal street fight.”
“The sad fact is that Safehouse’s secretive, haphazard ‘plan’ has not been vetted with any of the affected neighborhood residents, community groups, City Council members, State Representatives or State Senators,” McSwain said. “It is being unfairly foisted on them on the assumption that they don’t matter. It is treating them like fools.”
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.
Kenney acknowledged safety concerns and said in a statement that the city "is committed to ensuring that there is no increase in the sales of illegal drugs, violent crime, property crime, disorderly related offenses or loitering in the vicinity of an overdose prevention site."
He also promised an increase in police officers in the area and said that opening a supervised injection site is a life-saving decision.
"I support opening overdose prevention sites because no family deserves the pain and suffering of losing a loved one to substance use disorder, which is a disease. I believe we must do everything we can to help people to meet their God-given potential, and yes, that means keeping them alive so they always have that opportunity," he said.
The issue has divided public officials in Philadelphia and around the nation, although similar sites are in use in Canada and Europe. NBC10 visited two such sites in Toronto, where neighbors have had mixed reactions but health officials have heralded them as a success.
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.