The issue is that an injection site facility called Safehouse was set to open last year in Philadelphia with support from philanthropic, health and religious groups. Then-U.S. Attorney William McSwain, backed by the Justice Department, sued, arguing the facility would violate a law passed at the height of the 1980s crack-cocaine epidemic. The “crack house" statute prohibits operating a facility “for the purpose of unlawfully … using controlled substances.” A district court judge ruled that federal drug laws should not be interpreted to preclude the opening of a facility with a public health mission, but a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit panel reversed the ruling and the case is now pending on a petition for review in the Supreme Court.
The Biden administration has remained silent on the issue, despite repeated appeals for engagement by advocates of a harm-reduction approach to drug use. The Justice Department this month filed a letter waiving its right to reply to Safehouse’s cert petition. President Biden has made clear that “addressing the overdose and addiction epidemic is an urgent priority” and that his administration is committed to advancing “evidence-based public health” strategies. So why the inaction?
A group of 80 current and former elected prosecutors and law enforcement officials and former Justice Department officials last week filed an amicus brief supporting efforts to open what would be the country’s first overdose prevention site. The brief, coordinated by the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution, detailed the hazards posed by unsupervised injection: discarded needles in parks and streets; the spread of blood-borne illnesses exacerbated by needle sharing that endangers people whether they use drugs or not; unsafe neighborhoods and businesses having to contend with finding people unconscious from overdoses. It cited the positive impacts of drug injection sites that operate in more than a dozen countries.
There is, of course, no one solution to the problem of drug abuse, and more studies are needed on the efficacy of these sites in combating addiction. Several states are seeking to open overdose prevention sites and Rhode Island recently became the first to authorize a pilot program. Instead of sitting on the sidelines as people die — as more than 3,500 people have from overdoses in Philadelphia while litigation has been fought by the federal government — the Biden administration should lend its support.