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Court To Rule On Philadelphia's Proposed Safe Injection Sites


Philadelphia is trying to become the first U.S. city to give opioid users a place to legally inject drugs. But Justice Department lawyers will argue in federal court today against the nonprofit that wants to open the site. They say it's a violation of something known as the crack house statute, which was written back in the 1980s. WHYY's Nina Feldman has the story.

NINA FELDMAN, BYLINE: The nonprofit group Safehouse wants to open the site, and it has the backing of Philadelphia's elected officials. It says it would not provide heroin or other opioids, but people could bring their own to inject while medical professionals stand by with the overdose reversal drug naloxone. The U.S. government argues that violates the section of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act that says it's illegal to maintain any property for the purpose of using, storing or transferring drugs.

RONDA GOLDFEIN: We have no argument on the legality of those activities.

FELDMAN: That's Ronda Goldfein. She's on Safehouse's board and is a part of its legal team.

GOLDFEIN: But what we say is that our purpose is not to provide for the use of drugs. But rather, our purpose is to save lives. And that's not a prohibited activity under the law.

FELDMAN: U.S. Attorney William McSwain argues that it's the purpose of the person using the site that matters, not the operator. Here he is during a recent hearing, cross-examining Jose Benitez, who is also on Safehouse's board.


WILLIAM MCSWAIN: Why not go the legislative route and try to get the law changed to allow this to happen?

JOSE BENITEZ: Because this is an emergency.

FELDMAN: Philadelphia has the highest overdose rate of any large American city. An average of three people a day died of overdoses here in 2018. That rate is highest in Kensington, the neighborhood where Safehouse has proposed to open.

Joe Piscitello is a Philadelphia lawyer whose son has struggled with addiction. He supports supervised injection sites because he remembers staying up late at night worrying about his son Antonio, wondering where he was using and if anyone was nearby.

JOE PISCITELLO: And when I think of - oh, my God, there is this idea of having a place where people like him could go, where people will be there to keep an eye on him if he did have to use; and if he does overdose, there would be a physician to help him - that would have been a dream.

FELDMAN: The judge is unlikely to make a final decision on the case today.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Feldman in Philadelphia.

KING: That story is part of a reporting partnership between NPR, WHYY and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Feldman