« "An Ode to the Categorical Approach" | Main | "The Eighth Amendment Power to Discriminate" »

October 3, 2019

US District Judge rejects feds lawsuit to enjoin operation of proposed safe injection site for opioid users in Philadelphia

As reported in this NPR piece, a federal judge "has ruled that a Philadelphia nonprofit group's plan to open the first site in the U.S. where people can use illegal opioids under medical supervision does not violate federal drug laws, delivering a major setback to Justice Department lawyers who launched a legal challenge to block the facility." Here is more about the important ruling:

U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled Wednesday that Safehouse's plan to allow people to bring in their own drugs and use them in a medical facility to help combat fatal overdoses does not violate the Controlled Substances Act. "The ultimate goal of Safehouse's proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it," McHugh wrote in his opinion, which represents the first legal decision about whether supervised injection sites can be legally permissible under U.S. law.

The decision means that the country's first supervised injection site, or what advocates call an "overdose prevention site," can go forward. Justice Department prosecutors had sued to block the site, calling the proposal "in-your-face illegal activity."

While local officials from New York to San Francisco praised the decision, the federal government is expected to appeal. "The Department of Justice remains committed to preventing illegal drug injection sites from opening," said Bill McSwain, U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of Pennsylvania. "Today's opinion is merely the first step in a much longer legal process that will play out. This case is obviously far from over."

Most studies show that the supervised injection sites can drive down fatal overdoses. These sites are credited with restricting the spread of infectious diseases. And advocates say the facilities help move more people into treatment. The American Medical Association has endorsed launching supervised injection site pilot programs.

Ronda Goldfein, who is Safehouse's vice president and secretary, said winning judicial approval is a major feat for advocates of the proposed site, which also has the backing of top city officials and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. "Philadelphia is being devastated. We've lost about three people a day" to opioid overdoses, Goldfein said. "And we say we had to do something better and we couldn't sit back and let that death toll rise. And the court agreed with us."...

Supervised injection sites exist in Canada and Europe, but no such site has gotten legal permission to open in the U.S. Cities like New York, Denver and Seattle have been publicly debating similar proposals, but many were waiting for the outcome of the court battle in Philadelphia. Attorneys general from Washington, D.C., and seven states including Michigan, New Mexico and Oregon, in addition to city leaders in five cities, urged the court before the decision to rule in favor of Safehouse.

Legal hurdles are not Safehouse's only obstacles. The facility is planning to launch in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, which has been ravaged by the opioid crisis, but some neighbors have resisted welcoming an injection site into their community. Community activist Amanda Fury said the court decision will not change the hardened battle lines over this issue there. "I've never been in the business of trying to change people's minds on this," said Fury, who supports the measure but admits that residents are divided....

In court, meanwhile, prosecutors have contended that the plan violated a provision of the Controlled Substances Act that makes it illegal to own a property where drugs are being used — known as "the crack house statute." But backers of Safehouse argued the law was outdated and not written to prevent the opening of a medical facility aimed at saving lives in the midst of the opioid crisis....

On Wednesday, in a move that surprised observers, McHugh agreed. He wrote that there "is no support for the view that Congress meant to criminalize projects such as that proposed by Safehouse." McHugh rejected federal prosecutor's view that this was an open-and-shut case of a proposal clearly violating federal drug statutes. Instead, he noted that the purpose of Safehouse is not to provide a place for people to engage in unlawful activity. "Viewed objectively, what Safehouse proposes is far closer to the harm reduction strategies expressly endorsed by Congress," McHugh wrote.

The full opinion in US v. Safehouse is available at this link, and it makes for a very interesting read. These part of the opinion's introduction highlights how notions of judicial modesty in application of criminal law moved Judge McHugh:

As discussed below, courts must exercise extreme care in discerning the objective sought by Congress in enacting a statute.  That said, having reviewed materials I consider appropriate in discerning what Congress sought to address in enacting § 856(a)(2), there is no support for the view that Congress meant to criminalize projects such as that proposed by Safehouse.  Although the language, taken to its broadest extent, can certainly be interpreted to apply to Safehouse’s proposed safe injection site, to attribute such meaning to the legislators who adopted the language is illusory.  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.  Particularly in the area of criminal law, it is the province of Congress to determine what is worthy of sanction.  A line of authority dating back to Chief Justice John Marshall cautions courts against claiming power that properly rests with the legislative branch.  A responsible use of judicial power under those circumstances is to decline to expand the scope of criminal liability under the statute and allow Congress to address the issue.

The US Deputy Attorney General released this statement following this ruling, which states "The Department is disappointed in the Court’s ruling and will take all available steps to pursue further judicial review. Any attempt to open illicit drug injection sites in other jurisdictions while this case is pending will continue to be met with immediate action by the Department."

October 3, 2019 at 07:13 AM | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB