Safehouse is in settlement talks with the U.S. Department of Justice

A protester holds signs in support of a supervised injection site

File photo: A protester holds signs in support of a supervised injection site in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The nonprofit Safehouse is in settlement talks with the U.S. Justice Department, signaling major progress in the group’s years-long effort to open a supervised injection site in Philadelphia.

“We twice agreed to an extension of DOJ’s deadline to respond to our complaint because of productive conversations,” said Safehouse vice president Ronda Goldfein, referring to its ongoing litigation in U.S. District Court. The Biden administration originally owed Safehouse a response to its complaint in November. That was pushed back to January and is now due in March.

In its complaint, filed in September, Safehouse asked the court once again to rule that opening a space where people could inject illegal opioids under medical supervision to prevent overdoses would not be prohibited by the so-called “crackhouse statute,” a section of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act that bars any place from operating with the sole purpose of using or selling drugs. Safehouse filed the complaint after a three-judge federal appellate panel ruled that Safehouse’s proposed activities did violate federal law, reversing a previous district court decision. Safehouse asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, but that request was denied and the matter returned to the district court.

A lot has changed since the last time Safehouse faced off against the federal government at the district court level, most importantly, the administration in Washington. A Trump appointee, former U.S. Attorney William McSwain, now a Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor, aggressively pursued the case the first time around, suing Safehouse before it had a chance to open and appealing the lower court’s decision.

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Now though, the Justice Department under Attorney General Merrick Garland has shown signs of being amenable to the sites. Safehouse has been engaged in talks with the Biden administration since September. On Monday, the DOJ told the Associated Press that it was evaluating the sites. The comments came after a scheduled “status update” call listed on the court docket

“Although we cannot comment on pending litigation, the department is evaluating supervised consumption sites, including discussions with state and local regulators about appropriate guardrails for such sites, as part of an overall approach to harm reduction and public safety,” the department told the AP.

Safehouse’s latest complaint, to which the federal government is required to respond by March 7, stresses that a supervised injection room is only one component of the nonprofit’s proposed overdose prevention operations, furthering its argument that drug usage is not the primary purpose of the site. Safehouse also asserts that prohibiting the site would be a violation of the religious beliefs of Safehouse founders Goldfein and Jose Benitez.

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Former New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio supported the opening of two supervised injection sites there last year before his term ended. Those sites have successfully intervened in 134 overdoses, according to OnePoint, the group running them. Though New York is in a separate appeals court division that had not ruled on the sites, the DeBlasio administration was taking a gamble that the Biden administration wouldn’t crack down on them. So far, it has not, further signaling the Biden administration’s support of the sites.

Supervised injection sites have operated in Europe, Canada, and Australia for decades, and research demonstrates that they successfully reduce overdose deaths. Philadelphia saw more than 1,200 fatal overdoses in 2020, and was on track to surpass that rate for 2021.

Safehouse attempted to open a supervised injection site in South Philadelphia after the district court ruled it could, but before the appeal had been filed. It was met with substantial pushback from neighborhood residents and members of Philadelphia City Council for failing to engage neighborhood residents in the process.

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