Four Pennsylvania senators are throwing their political weight against overdose prevention, urging a federal court to block nonprofit Safehouse from opening a safe consumption site in Philadelphia. They’re basing this on the claim that the facility would violate federal law—when most of the politicians, all of whom are Democrats, have supported breaking federal drug laws to legalize cannabis.
Their intervention in a long-running legal case—joining new a filing against the site by local businesses and police—comes at a potentially critical stage in mediation.
Plans to open a safe consumption site (SCS, also known as overdose prevention sites) in Philadelphia, to be operated by Safehouse, were first announced in 2018—just after Tom Wolf, then Pennsylvania’s governor, declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency in the state. SCS, where people can use banned drugs with trained staff and peers on hand to intervene in any overdose, are unequivocally shown to save lives and benefit public health.
“They seem to think there is an imminent resolution; we don’t know that. It’s a strange maneuveur.”
But in February 2019, a federal prosecutor appointed by President Trump sued to block the Safehouse site from opening. The legal conflict has continued ever since.
The Trump administration argued that any SCS would violate the federal “crack house” statute, a Reagan-era law that criminalizes “maintaining drug-involved premises.” In February 2020, the federal District Court in Philadelphia ruled in favor of harm reduction, reasoning that the point of the site would be to save lives, not to buy or sell drugs. But just after the court win, Safehouse temporarily tabled the plan amid backlash from residents in South Philadelphia.
Then in January 2021, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the 2020 ruling. Safehouse and its allies vowed to fight on.
Since then, the case has reached something of a stalemate. Safehouse unsuccessfully sought a review by the Supreme Court, before taking its arguments back to the District Court in Philadelphia. The Biden administration has repeatedly delayed a new court hearing to avoid having to take a stance on SCS.
Safehouse was initially hopeful that “productive talks” with the Department of Justice (DOJ) would bring an agreement in favor of SCS. But frustrations grew after the most recent extension in December 2022, when the nonprofit declared, “We’ll file a motion in opposition tomorrow. How long must we wait to save lives?”
Then in January, Safehouse and the DOJ agreed to move the case out of the court and into mediation with a magistrate judge. Safehouse hoped this would be “the best way to resolve the lawsuit quickly.” A Safehouse representative was not able to provide comment to Filter by publication time.
“The DOJ and Safehouse are in structured negotiations or settlement talks,” Kellen Russoniello, senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Filter. “The magistrate judge is facilitating a potential settlement agreement between DOJ and Safehouse. We don’t really have any insight to what goes on in those conversations, and we won’t know until they either announce a resolution or they don’t reach one and it goes back to the district court.”
Opponents of harm reduction weren’t willing to wait to find out. On April 11, 20 local “community groups”—including police and business owners—filed a motion to take over the federal government’s case as new plaintiffs.
“The Community Groups seek immediate intervention to protect the interests the Government may imminently abandon,” it stated. “For decades, the Community Groups’ members have suffered the consequences of their neighborhoods’ infestation with crime and drugs … Without intervention, the law and Philadelphia’s neighborhoods may be left with no defense.”
“It’s a little strange at this point,” Russoniello responded. “We don’t know what the outcome of this mediation is going to be. They seem to think there is an imminent resolution; we don’t know that. This is an ongoing legal case and they’re trying to intervene on behalf of the DOJ and take over the case. It’s a strange maneuveur.”
Then on April 12, four Democratic state Senators—Sharif Street, Christine Tartaglione, Anthony Williams and Jimmy Dillon—filed an amicus brief in the District Court against opening the SCS.
“Operating a drug consumption site with the significant purpose of offering a place at which visitors may inject themselves with controlled substances violates the plain language of the [Controlled Substances Act],” they wrote.
As Marijuana Moment noted, three of these lawmakers have publicly supported cannabis legalization in Pennsylvania, with Sen. Street even sponsoring a bill in support of it. The three are basically saying it’s okay for their state to violate federal drug law in order to allow cannabis sales, but not in order save lives through overdose prevention.
“There is always the prerogative to move something forward even if federal law has yet to catch up with states and communities.”
Legally, of course, the senators’ claim is disputed.
“Our view is that [opening SCS] is not in violation of federal law,” Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, told Filter. “But even if it were, certainly we know in the cannabis context that states and local jurisdictions have chosen to move forward because criminalizing these things is not in the best interest of their communities. There is always the prerogative to move something forward even if federal law has yet to catch up with states and communities.”
Krinsky was one of 80 current and former criminal justice and law enforcement professionals who signed an amicus brief in support of Safehouse in 2021.
The senators noted that their Democratic colleage, Sen. Tartaglione, has introduced a bill that would basically criminalize any SCS in Pennsylvania. If the court rules in Safehouse’s favor, they argue, it would give the nonprofit special treatment in doing something potentially in violation of state law. But Tartaglione’s bill has not become law.
“It would be unfortunate to embrace a view that the crackhouse statute, created decades ago for a very different purpose, somehow creates a legal bar to opening these facilities,” Krinsky said. “Certainly the District Court Judge [Gerald McHugh] found there was no reason to believe that federal narcotics laws should bar an overdose prevention site from moving forward, and it was our hope that there would be a legal resolution that those statutes cannot and should not stand in the way.”
“Beyond that,” she added, “it really needs to be a community decision about where these sites are best located and what implementation moving forward should look like. That’s got to be driven by conversations and engagement with the community.”
Victory or a positive settlement in the Safehouse case could pave the way to many more SCS in the United States, amid an unprecedented national overdose crisis. But SCS are already up and running in the country—with the results that harm reductionists always expected.
New York City has now been home to two sanctioned SCS, operated by OnPoint, for almost 18 months. These have successfully intervened in hundreds of overdoses and connected thousands of peolpe with care and support services.
There’s further momentum, too. Later this year, Rhode Island is expected to finally open the pilot sites that its legislature and governor approved back in 2021. And state lawmakers in New York, Colorado and New Mexico are among those to have advanced bills to authorize SCS.
“We believe it would be more fruitful to come to a resolution [in Philadelphia] where they can have these centers, get community support involved,” Russoniello said. “We need these centers so they can provide lifesaving services, and that can be done in a way that addresses the community concerns. That’s what they’ve been doing in New York.”
Photograph of a Canadian SCS by Matthew Bonn
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from DPA to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.