U.S. at­tor­ney prom­ises mea­sures to stop safe in­jec­tion site plan, says he ‘won’t look the other way’

Texarkana Gazette - - NATION/WORLD - By Jeremy Roe­buck and Aubrey Whe­lan

The Philadel­phia In­quirer

PHILADEL­PHIA—Call­ing the idea “fun­da­men­tally il­le­gal,” the Philadel­phia re­gion’s top fed­eral law en­force­ment of­fi­cial says that his of­fice will take mea­sures—pos­si­bly in­clud­ing ar­rests and pros­e­cu­tions—to pre­vent the city from be­com­ing home to the na­tion’s first safe drug-in­jec­tion site.

But he is al­ready re­view­ing pos­si­ble op­tions to stop it, such as court or­ders, block­ing the open­ing of the fa­cil­ity and crim­i­nal for­fei­ture pro­ceed­ings against the op­er­a­tion.

“The bot­tom line is that the sort of fa­cil­ity that is be­ing pro­posed is il­le­gal un­der fed­eral law,” U.S. At­tor­ney Wil­liam McSwain said. “We’re not go­ing to look the other way.”

Sup­port­ers con­tend that their plan is le­gal, and they in­tend to pro­ceed. No site has been cho­sen, but back­ers have in­di­cated that it’s likely to open in Kens­ing­ton, the neigh­bor­hood that has be­come both the cen­ter and pub­lic sym­bol of the city’s opi­oid epi­demic.

McSwain, in an in­ter­view, de­clined to com­mit to any spe­cific ac­tion. Still, the op­tions he de­scribed of­fered the most con­crete out­line yet of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s po­ten­tial re­sponse should the pro­posal’s back­ers move for­ward. They also seemed to sig­nal a loom­ing court bat­tle that could de­cide the le­gal­ity of su­per­vised in­jec­tion sites across the United States.

“No­body is above the law –– and by that I mean no­body,” McSwain said. “I mean the lead­ers who would be in­volved in set­ting up this pro­posed deadly drug in­jec­tion site, the board mem­bers … the city of­fi­cials who would be in­volved in sup­port­ing it, the med­i­cal per­son­nel who might be staffing it or the folks who might be us­ing the drugs.”

A few of cities, in­clud­ing New York and Seat­tle, have also inched closer to es­tab­lish­ing in­jec­tion sites in the past year.

And while the Jus­tice De­part­ment has op­posed the idea, it has been re­luc­tant to spell out a na­tion­wide pol­icy on how it might re­spond. Still, the com­ments by McSwain, who was ap­pointed by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and started in April, and sim­i­lar re­marks by Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein in Au­gust, in­di­cate that the of­fice is pre­par­ing for a court­room show­down.

De­spite threats of court ac­tion, Jose Ben­itez—pres­i­dent of Safe­house, the Philadel­phia safe in­jec­tion site non­profit—said he and his col­leagues re­main un­de­terred, es­pe­cially in a city where 1,217 peo­ple died of over­doses last year.

“We are morally ob­li­gated to con­tinue what we’re do­ing,” said Ben­itez, who also runs the city’s only nee­dle-ex­change pro­gram, Preven­tion Point. “There are peo­ple out there dy­ing, and we have to ad­dress that is­sue.”

He and other pro­po­nents of safe in­jec­tion sites say the con­tro­ver­sial idea would pro­vide peo­ple with ad­dic­tion a space where med­i­cal staff could mon­i­tor their drug use, pre­vent po­ten­tial over­doses, and of­fer drug treat­ment ser­vices.

City of­fi­cials have said they would not stand in the way of such a fa­cil­ity in Philadel­phia, though they would of­fer no fund­ing. Penn­syl­va­nia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Shapiro has come out against the idea, though he has not spelled out any steps he could or might take in re­sponse.

In that un­set­tled le­gal land­scape, Ren­dell, Ben­itez, and Ronda Gold­fein—the third mem­ber of the Safe­house board—this month took the first con­crete steps to­ward es­tab­lish­ing a safe in­jec­tion site. They in­cor­po­rated the Safe­house non­profit and be­gan fundrais­ing ef­fort to get the $1.8 mil­lion they say they will need to op­er­ate the fa­cil­ity in its first year.

Un­der their pro­posal, the site would ban drug deal­ing, drug shar­ing, ex­chang­ing money, and the shar­ing of nee­dles or other drug para­pher­na­lia. Par­tic­i­pants would not be able to help one an­other use drugs, and staffers would not han­dle drugs taken to the site.

Gold­fein, who is also ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the AIDS Law Project of Penn­syl­va­nia, said she and her col­leagues have been con­sult­ing with lawyers should their pro­pos­als land them in court.

“We’re re­spect­ful of the author­ity of (McSwain’s) of­fice,” she said. “But we are com­mit­ted to tak­ing these steps be­cause we feel com­pelled to.”

But even in their word choices the U.S. at­tor­ney and Safe­house’s back­ers re­main miles apart.

Both re­ject the widely used term “safe in­jec­tion site.” The non­profit’s back­ers re­fer to their pro­posal as an “over­dose preven­tion site,” while McSwain used the term deadly drug in­jec­tion site.

And even with the pre­cau­tions Safe­house has laid out, McSwain views their plan as un­work­able.

“It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter that the city’s not in­volved in fund­ing it,” he said. “It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter that the city isn’t lit­er­ally grab­bing the nee­dles and in­ject­ing the ad­dicts with the drugs them­selves. They’re set­ting up a drug house, and that’s clearly il­le­gal un­der our view.”

Cen­tral to the dis­pute as he sees it is a 1986 fed­eral law—known col­lo­qui­ally as the “crack-house statute”—which makes it a felony pun­ish­able by up to 20 years in prison to know­ingly open or main­tain any place for the pur­pose of man­u­fac­tur­ing, dis­tribut­ing, or us­ing con­trolled sub­stances.

Pro­po­nents of su­per­vised in­jec­tion sites ar­gue that the law, passed at the height of the crack co­caine epi­demic, was not in­tended to in­ter­fere with good-faith ef­forts to im­prove pub­lic health.

“The in­tent of the crack-house law was to pro­hibit one type of con­duct,” Gold­fein said. “We be­lieve that our con­duct is dif­fer­ent from that”—namely, that Safe­house is work­ing to pre­vent over­doses, not pro­mote drug use.

McSwain main­tains that the law is clear and that if projects like Safe­house are to move for­ward legally, then its back­ers should first lobby leg­is­la­tors to change it.

“There’s no ‘good in­ten­tion’ ex­cep­tion to fed­eral law,” he said. “We don’t say to a tax cheat: Well, don’t worry about pay­ing your taxes (be­cause) you think gov­ern­ment is too big.”

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