S.F. undaunted as Trump tries to stop Philly injection site
The Trump administration is going to court to stop a safe injection site from opening in Philadelphia, saying it would violate federal drug laws — the same action it has threatened to take against San Francisco, which plans to open one or more spaces offering clean needles, syringes, medical care and counseling to drug users.
“The proponents of the injection site share our goal of ending this terrible (opioid) epidemic,” U.S. Attorney William McSwain said Wednesday in announcing the suit against a nonprofit that plans to open the Philadelphia injection site. “But allowing private citizens to break long-established federal drug laws passed by Congress is not an acceptable path forward.”
The suit relies on a federal law that makes it a felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, fines and forfeiture of the property, to knowingly operate a “place for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.” Passed at a time of rising crack cocaine use in inner cities, it was directed at private drug houses, and no court has yet ruled on whether it applies to government supervised sites aimed at reducing drug addiction.
The Philadelphia site would be operated by a recently incorporated nonprofit called Safeside, with supervision from the city and support from the mayor and district attorney. The San Francisco facilities would be directly managed by the city under current plans, although Jeff Cretan, spokesman for Mayor London Breed, said Wednesday that the mayor is “open to any solution to get people off the streets and into treatment.”
“The mayor is aware of how this administration feels on these sites, but she’s still committed to working on this and moving the site forward,” Cretan said.
No U.S. community has opened a place to supervise drug injections, but they have been legalized in 10 nations.
As a Bay Area lawmaker noted, President Trump’s Justice Department filed the Philadelphia lawsuit less than 12 hours after the president, in his State of the Union speech, pledged to “defeat AIDS.”
“Safe injection sites are a proven HIV prevention strategy, in addition to reducing overdose deaths and helping people into recovery services,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said in a statement.
“The president is a hypocrite, and his words mean nothing,” he said. “We are fully committed to legalizing safe injection sites in California and piloting them in San Francisco.”
Wiener is a co-author of legislation, AB362, that would amend state law to allow San Francisco to operate an injection site for three years. The lead author, Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, won passage of a similar bill last year, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it in September.
“Enabling illegal and destructive drug use will never work,” Brown said in his veto message.
But Gov. Gavin Newsom, Brown’s successor and a former San Francisco mayor, has said he is “very open” to the idea. The city has put its plans on hold to await legislative action.
The day after the Legislature approved Eggman’s bill in August, the New York Times carried an opinion piece by the Trump administration’s deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, promising “swift and aggressive action” against San Francisco or any other community that opens an injection site.
“It is a federal felony to maintain any location for the purpose of facilitating illegal drug use,” Rosenstein wrote. He argued that the sites encourage addiction by sending a “powerful message to teenagers that the government thinks illegal drugs can be used safely.”