Legal Battle Over Philadelphia's Proposed Safe Injection Site Heats Up : Shots - Health News A Philadelphia group hopes to open a site for people to use drugs under medical supervision. Faced with legal challenges, the group is making a moral and religious case for its proposed facility.

Supporters Sue To Open Safe Injection Site In Philadelphia, Citing Religious Freedom

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. Justice Department and a Philadelphia nonprofit are locked in a legal battle. The nonprofit is called Safehouse. They want to open a facility where people can inject drugs under supervision. Prosecutors took legal action to try to block the site from opening. Now Safehouse has filed a countersuit against the Trump administration. Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: In Philadelphia, about three people a day die from drug overdoses. The severity of the problem is why public officials here are supporting opening a space for people to use illegal opioids under medical supervision.

TOM FARLEY: I'm a public health official whose job it is to prevent needless deaths.

ALLYN: Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley.

FARLEY: The evidence is clear that these facilities save lives while, at the same time, serving as an entry way into drug treatment.

ALLYN: The idea is to allow people to bring their own drugs, use them while being monitored by nurses and other medical staff, then offer access to treatment, legal counseling, housing and other social services. Supervised injection sites have operated in Canada, Europe and Australia. But one has never officially opened in the United States. U.S. Attorney for the Philadelphia area Bill McSwain wants to keep it that way.

BILL MCSWAIN: These are folks who have good intentions. But we think that this step of opening an injection site is a step that crosses the line.

ALLYN: The folks McSwain is talking about are the members of Safehouse, the nonprofit hoping to launch the country's first injection site this year. So McSwain and the Trump administration sued Safehouse. They cite so-called crack-house laws that make it a crime to own a property where drugs are being used. In response, Safehouse has now assembled a team of a dozen pro bono lawyers and has countersued the government. Safehouse lawyers say those laws from the 1980s were never meant to apply to a medical facility in the midst of a modern public health crisis. Lawyer Ronda Goldfein is the vice president of Safehouse.

RONDA GOLDFEIN: If we feel like this is in our power to make this happen or to go down trying, we owe it to all those we've lost.

ALLYN: Advocates compare the injection site's lifesaving potential to how syringe exchanges helped reduce deaths during the AIDS epidemic. Officials in Massachusetts, New York, Colorado and California have discussed similar injection site proposals. But because of the legal uncertainty, most of those efforts have stalled. The judge's ruling could reverberate around the country, either paving the way for injection sites or, McSwain hopes, permanently blocking them.

MCSWAIN: You know, this is something that I think that people will be looking at as, in a sense, a test case that could have implications in other districts.

ALLYN: Yet McSwain says there's a big difference between handing out clean needles and inviting people in a space to use their own drugs.

In Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, opioid user Joe has a different perspective. We're only using Joe's first name, since he uses illegal drugs. He's 35, from New Jersey and used to sell mortgage loans for a living. Now he's in the throes of addiction.

JOE: It's sad to see the people that are dying, man. I've had so many friends dying, so many people that are on this that - it's just they're not the same person. And I'm not the same person. And we're not the same people.

ALLYN: Joe is standing around discarded needles right across the street from a building Safehouse is considering moving into. Its by a noisy train track platform. Joe says he almost died from a opioid overdose. He says if the injection site opens, he'd quickly become one of its clients.

JOE: Using in front of the medical staff and knowing that someone's educated and trained, and they're going to get the proper treatment if they need it...

ALLYN: ...Versus, Joe says, using in abandoned buildings, alleyways and fast-food bathrooms, where often a fatal overdose can happen without anybody watching. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia.

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