The top federal prosecutor in Philadelphia has filed suit to stop a nonprofit from opening the nation’s first supervised drug injection site to address the city’s opioid problem.
The lawsuit pits U.S. Attorney William McSwain’s stance on safe injection sites against those of Philadelphia’s mayor, district attorney and a former Pennsylvania governor who support them. McSwain believes that supporters should try to change the law, not break laws he is charged with upholding.
“Normalizing the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl is not the answer to solving the epidemic,” said McSwain, who called the planned facility “a deadly injection site.”
He spoke at a morning news conference as supporters of the planned Safehouse program gathered outside his Independence Mall office, complaining they were barred from attending. They said thousands of people could die of overdoses in Philadelphia in the time it might take to change the law.
Philadelphia has the highest opioid death rate of any large U.S. city, with more than 1,200 fatal overdoses in 2017. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and other city officials announced last year that they’d support a private entity operating and funding safe injection sites.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has meanwhile joined the board of Safehouse and said he’s willing to face arrest. He bucked similar regulations when he was Philadelphia mayor in the 1990s, sanctioning the city’s first needle exchange program and inviting the state’s attorney general to arrest him.
“If I thought for a minute that safe injection sites would create new addicts, I wouldn’t be a part of it. I see the ability to save lives and get people who are addicts exposed to treatment,” Rendell said last fall.
McSwain said he hopes the civil lawsuit — a pre-emptive strike of sorts as the program has not opened — will prompt a federal judge to declare the plan illegal. For now, he is seeking only a ruling that the practice violates the 1986 “crack house statute,” not fines or asset forfeiture. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh Jr., a West Philadelphia native and President Obama appointee.
“We are not arresting anyone,” McSwain said. “We’re not trying to seize any property or do any thing heavy-handed at all. We’re just asking the federal court to look at it.”
Lisa Kelley, a 48-year-old artist who took part in Wednesday’s demonstration, grew up in the Kensington neighborhood, now the epicenter of the city’s opioid crisis. It was known even then as a drug haven, but today draws people battling addiction from across the region and beyond. Kelley believes a safe injection site would help the neighborhood as well as the individual users.
“I absolutely believe it would help the community. It would cut down on the needles found on the street, cut down on the number of people using on the street, cut down on the number of kids having to see that when they’re walking to school in the morning,” said Kelley, who lost a friend, addiction activist Paul Yabor, to an overdose two years ago, and has an adult foster son in recovery.