Safehouse Founders Talk Overdose Prevention Sites’ Recent Victory, Future Challenges

Safehouse Founders Talk Overdose Prevention Sites’ Recent Victory, Future Challenges

The Philadelphia-based organization was given the green light to open the first overdose prevention sites in the U.S.

Soon after a judge ruled in their favor, the organization set to open the first ever overdose prevention sites in the United States reflected on their recent victory in an op-ed.

This month, a federal judge ruled that Safehouse may go ahead with efforts to open two sites (also known as harm reduction sites or supervised injection facilities) in Philadelphia. The ruling was a clear victory over the federal government, which argued in court that the proposed facilities violated a provision of the Controlled Substances Act.

“Opioid users would be free to come to the sites and inject their products with clean needles, and health workers would be on hand to make sure no one overdoses. At no point would we distribute or even touch controlled substances; the user would bring them to our facility. This isn’t a substitution of treatment, but it is safer than having people use drugs alone or on the streets,” wrote the three founders of Safehouse, the organization that proposed to open the sites, in a Washington Post opinion piece.

They would be the first such (legal) facilities in the United States.

We Could No Longer Wait As The Death Toll Continued To Rise

Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania, Jose A. Benitez, executive director of Prevention Point Philly and Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania founded Safehouse because “we could no longer wait as the death toll continued to rise almost unabated,” they wrote.

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The face of Philadelphia’s drug crisis is Kensington, a neighborhood so notorious for its drug problem that The New York Times called it “the Walmart of Heroin” in a feature last year. 

Rendell, Benitez and Goldfein noted that 1,217 people in Philadelphia died of opioid overdoses in 2017. “The problem was, of course, that most people who overdose do so alone, and even if naloxone was on the table next to them, they couldn’t administer it because an overdose renders a person unconscious,” they wrote.

Safehouse’s mission is to save lives, which overdose prevention sites have proven to do in Canada and about 120 other such sites around the world.

“It is important to note that we, like other harm reduction advocates, do not believe supervised injection sites are the answer to the opioid crisis… but we do know that supervised injection sites will save lives,” they wrote.

With the momentum from their recent victory in court, the founders say, “We hope it will be one of many across the country.”

Suits Followed By Countersuits

This month, U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh ruled that the facilities were not in violation of federal law, as the federal government tried to argue in court.

Pennsylvania prosecutors and the Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit against Safehouse in February, trying to stop the organization from moving forward with opening the facilities, which had the endorsement of local officials including Mayor Jim Kenney.

In suing Safehouse, the government argued that the facilities would violate the “crack house” statute under the Controlled Substances Act, which made it a crime to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily… for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.”

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Safehouse countersued in federal court, which concluded with the judge’s recent ruling.

McHugh said in his decision that it was clear that overdose prevention sites were not intended targets of the Congress in 1986 when they created the “crack house” statute.

“There is no support for the view that Congress meant to criminalize projects such as that proposed by Safehouse,” McHugh wrote. “Safe injection sites were not considered by Congress and could not have been, because their use as a possible harm reduction strategy among opioid users had not yet entered public discourse.”

McHugh determined that Safehouse’s mission did not clash with the law. “The ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it, and accordingly, [the “crack house” statute] does not prohibit Safehouse’s proposed conduct.”

Despite their victory, the founders—Rendell, Benitez, and Goldfein—acknowledged in the Washington Post op-ed that the fight is far from over.

“While we may have won that first legal battle, we still have hurdles to clear,” they wrote.

“We hope that our victory emboldens other cities to venture into setting up their own harm reduction sites. While our federal ruling is not binding on other jurisdictions, we believe its logic and reasoned interpretation will help proposed facilities in places such as New York, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Denver when and if they face court challenges,” they wrote.

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