U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia sues to stop first-in-nation supervised drug injection site

The site was intended as a way to combat the opioid crisis and prevent overdoses.
Image: Shey Hall, left, and Evan Figueroa-Vargas hold a banner in protest outside the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia on Feb. 6, 2019.
Shey Hall, left, and Evan Figueroa-Vargas hold a banner in protest outside the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia on Feb. 6, 2019.Heather Khalifa / The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

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By The Associated Press

The top federal prosecutor in Philadelphia has filed suit to stop a nonprofit from opening a first-in-the-nation supervised drug injection site to address the city's opioid problem.

The lawsuit pits U.S. Attorney William McSwain's stance on safe injection sites against those of Philadelphia's mayor, district attorney and a former Pennsylvania governor. McSwain said he believes supporters should try to change the laws, not break them.

"Normalizing the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl is not the answer to solving the epidemic," McSwain said at a Wednesday news conference, while protesters gathered outside his Independence Mall office.

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William McSwain speaks during a press conference on a suit to stop a nonprofit from opening a supervised drug injection site on Feb. 6, 2019.Heather Khalifa / The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

They said thousands of people could die of overdoses in Philadelphia in the time it might take to change the law.

Philadelphia has the highest opioid death rate of any large U.S. city. Mayor Jim Kenney and some city officials have said they'd support a private entity operating and funding safe injection sites. A likely location is the Kensington neighborhood, north of downtown, where so-called "drug tourists" flock to buy high-grade heroin and city librarians have learned to use Naloxone to respond to bathroom overdoses.

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"We are not going to prosecute people who are trying to stop people from dying," District Attorney Larry Krasner said in response to McSwain's remarks. "We had 1,200 people die last year. I think it is inexcusable to play politics with their lives."

Krasner said he has visited a safe injection program in Vancouver to study the situation. The staff does not administer drugs, he said, but instead nudges users if they fall asleep or have trouble breathing and, as a last resort, administers Naloxone.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a fellow Democrat, has joined the board of Safehouse, the nonprofit trying to raise $1.8 million to open an injection site, and has said he's willing to face arrest. He bucked similar regulations when he was Philadelphia mayor in the 1990s, sanctioning the city's first needle exchange program.

"If I thought for a minute that safe injection sites would create new addicts, I wouldn't be a part of it. I see the ability to save lives and get people who are addicts exposed to treatment," Rendell said last fall.

McSwain said he hopes the civil suit - a pre-emptive strike of sorts - will prompt a federal judge to declare the plan illegal. For now, he is seeking only a ruling that the practice violates the 1986 "crack house statute," which was aimed at people running drug dens. His critics say the statute is being misapplied.

"We are not arresting anyone," said McSwain, a President Trump appointee. "We're not trying to seize any property or do any thing heavy-handed at all. We're just asking the federal court to look at it."

The Department of Justice said in a statement that the suit is the first of its kind in the country.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh Jr., a West Philadelphia native appointed by President Obama.

Protester Lisa Kelley, a 48-year-old artist, grew up in Kensington, known even then as a drug haven, if on a smaller scale. She believes the Safehouse program would help the neighborhood as well as users.

"I absolutely believe it would help the community," said Kelley, who lost a friend, addiction activist Paul Yabor, to an overdose two years ago and has a foster son in recovery. "It would cut down on the needles found on the street, cut down on the number of people using on the street, cut down on the number of kids having to see that when they're walking to school in the morning."

Similar sites have been proposed in New York and San Francisco.

“Operating spaces for the purpose of allowing the use of illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl violates federal law and creates serious public safety risks," said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of D.O.J.’s civil division. He said the division "will not hesitate to bring actions like this against any state, city, municipality, or private entity that attempts to open a so-called ‘safe-injection site.’”

Dareh Gregorian contributed.