MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Justice Department Sues To Block Philadelphia Supervised Injection Site

Just last night the president said he wants to stop the spread of HIV. This move won't help.

Trashed drug paraphernaliaCharles Mostoller/NewscomPresident Donald Trump said in his State of the Union Address last night that he wants to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS in America within 10 years.

This morning, a Justice Department attorney announced he would try to stop a supervised injection site planned for Philadelphia that would help reduce both the spread of HIV among intravenous drug users and overdose deaths.

U.S. Attorney William McSwain of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held a press conference Wednesday morning to announce he would be seeking a judicial review that might prevent a local nonprofit named Safehouse from moving forward with plans to build a center funded by private donations.

This nonprofit group is not attempting to force this building and program into the city. Philadelphia officials, including the city's mayor, police commissioner, and district attorney, are all supportive of a supervised injection center, where intravenous drug users can be supervised by health workers and counseled about treatment options. Philadelphia has a serious problem with drug overdoses and public use, having seen more than 1,200 overdose deaths in 2017.

Other communities with high rates of overdose deaths and outdoor use, like Seattle and San Francisco, are also considering injection facilities. But the Justice Department says such facilities are illegal under federal law, and federal prosecutors have threatened legal actions if these cities move forward.

McSwain's lawsuit is the first to issue more than just a warning. He's filing a civil suit and seeking a declaration from the judge that operating an injection center would violate federal drug laws.

McSwain tells the Philadelphia Inquirer that the point here is to essentially scare Safehouse into dropping its plans so that he doesn't have to prosecute those involved:

"We want to take an incremental, reasonable approach," McSwain said in the interview. "We're not interested in some sort of criminal confrontation or drama or trying to be heavy-handed. We think it serves everyone's interests for the federal court to issue a declaration as to whether this proposed site is illegal or not."

It is likely that a 1986 federal law will prove central to the case ahead. Known colloquially as the "crack-house statute," the law makes it a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison to knowingly open or maintain any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing or using controlled substances.

You know what would be a more reasonable approach? Allow Philadelphia to experiment and see if this actually helps. Cities outside the U.S. have had considerable success operating supervised injection facilities, which serve as key hubs for referring drug users into treatment (if they want it), reducing the spread of communicable disease, and otherwise helping city residents manage their addictions in a safe environment.

Last night, after Trump declared he wanted to eliminate the spread of HIV in 10 years, I noted that the administration's punitive approach to the opioid crisis is a barrier to achieving such a goal. This is a perfect example. A supervised injection site would not only prevent overdose deaths—it would also reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis by providing clean needles, and it would allow users who have those diseases but don't know it to get treatment and take preventative measures. A supervised injection facility might not solve Philadelphia's decades-long heroin crisis, but it's highly unlikely to make it worse.

Photo Credit: Charles Mostoller/Newscom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    How about mandating that everyone has to take prep?

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    -H? How would that help?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    It would help reduce the spread of HIV. Duh.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Does it ever occur to anyone there was no HIV before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan? If I were a fanatical jihadist I'd definitely have inoculated Afghani smack with plentiful African monkey virus and put it right back into the hands of infidel Rooskies and Yanks alike. Yanks unable to buy needles OTC would then spread the infection in exactly the same loci as the hepatitis outbreaks that occurred immediately after clean works were banned in These States. Exactly that occurred. The infection patterns were precisely the same, just as HIV outbreaks in Africa showed up earliest in former German colonies, where opiate dumping had been going on since before WWI.

  • Sevo||

    ^?

  • SIV||

    I seem to recall reading something just the other day about Philadelphia shutting down a supervised injection site.

    Ah, here it is

    I don't think Philly really wants to "experiment" at all. They want something else.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    That's not a supervised site, that's an unsupervised site.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    So it's not just the city and its inhabitants but everyone who comes in contact with Filthacrapia. They can't help but be a-holes. IT'S LIKE AN AIRBORNE VIRUS OR SOMETHING.

    Also, I am beginning to suspect that the Justice Department employs too many attorneys for the workload.

  • ||

    I'm disappointed that Führer Trump's plan to reduce HIV isn't distributing free needles laced with HIV *and* fentanyl.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Philly has a tax of $0.015/ounce for soda. What's the tax for heroin laced with fentanyl?

  • ||

    If I see HIV and opioids as personal choice issues that should resolve themselves without social intervention, does that put me on the pro- or anti-Trump side of the fence?

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    It's not a fence, it's a wall. Or it's not a wall. It depends on whether you're pro-Trump or anti-Trump.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    You know what would be a more reasonable approach? Allow Philadelphia to experiment and see if this actually helps. Cities outside the U.S. have had considerable success operating supervised injection facilities, which serve as key hubs for referring drug users into treatment (if they want it), reducing the spread of communicable disease, and otherwise helping city residents manage their addictions in a safe environment.

    Putting aside the justice department lawsuit for a moment, INSITE, mentioned in the article above has had what could be reasonably described as great success in stopping overdose deaths for persons physically overdosing inside the INSITE facility, but hasn't had such great results in reducing overdose deaths in Vancouver at large. [PDF warning] In my link, the statistics are for BC (not just Vancouver), but as you can see, overdose deaths from illicit drugs (study is broken down by prescription vs. illicit, etc) has... well, skyrocketed.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I haven't seen any numbers on whether the incidence of overdose (without death) has increased since INSITE opened.

    Regarding HIV rates, there is a correlation between INSITE opening and an overall drop in HIV rate incidence, but even the positive statistics have me a little curious.

    Note the graph of HIV incidence starting in 2003 when INSITE opened. There was a brief spike of HIV infections in 2003, followed by drops in '04 and 05, then spiking dramatically in 06 (not explained) and then a return to '04 levels in 07 with small drops since that.

    That might be due to INSITE, it might be due to other mitigating factors as you can also see from the graph, HIV rates had already been dropping steadily (and dramatically since 1997).

    It does seem true that there has been no statistical increase in crime around the INSITE facility-- but I've always asked, and still do: Is crime prevented from dropping due to the existence of INSITE?

    So it seems to me that INSITES record is somewhat mixed-- and even the positive impacts might be due to extraneous factors.

  • awildseaking||

    Let Philly decide, huh? Alright, everyone else here from Philly, let's let these non-locals know what we think.

    First off, do you even know where the "safe" injection site is located? It's a park and library called McPherson Square. Every major city has one, but this is our "needle park." For those of you who have actually been to Kensington (or god forbid lived there), you know of McPherson Square because it's smack in the middle. Kensington is the worst neighborhood in Philly and the primary reason North Philly has such a bad reputation. The park itself is quite pretty, but has heavy police presence 24/7, including multiple mobile command units, trailers, and an army of police in vans and on horseback. This is the infamous Narcan park where librarians were trained to administer.

    Second, do you really think the people unfortunate enough to live in Kensington want even more junkies on their streets? For a libertarian blog, you would think writers here would never advocate NIMBYism, yet these injection sites aren't going to be anywhere near Rittenhouse Square or Fairmount, but go ahead and make the worst neighborhoods even more dangerous. cont

  • awildseaking||

    Third, there's very little evidence to support that safe injection even helps deal with addiction. Aside from the fact that you are 100% guaranteed to continue their addiction, you're also literally killing these people by providing them the means to inject heroin. Yes, heroin is a deadly substance. It's not just some fun drug that's perfectly safe (not that such a thing exists anyways). The truth about drug addiction to deadly substances is that most addicts simply end up dead. The idea that keeping them alive an extra day will turn their life around is not statistically supported in any capacity. Safe injection is really just a feel good policy because in a simplistic world, keeping someone alive another day means that maybe they'll seek treatment, even if in reality they never do.

    Finally, there's the legality in question and I think it's highly suspect for the government to use taxpayer resources to keep heroin addicts high. Let's be real: if you've somehow deluded yourself into thinking that these projects will be 100% privately funded, then you don't know Philly politics. We always end up paying one way or another.

  • DenverJ||

    Sure sure. Probably better for them to just share dirty needles under the overpass, and then just die.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    The real answer to that is to legalize or greatly reform the War on Drugs. For those of us who live in cities ravaged by dirty needles and open-air drug markets, we saw those appear when our local government ramped up their policies to factor eleven. When the result was miles of tents, human feces, rising crime and a really-for-reals sense of despair, the local government announces they have a plan: Let us ramp it up to factor twelve and THIS time it'll really fix things.

    I'm not categorically against safe injection sites, but given the statistics, I haven't been convinced they really fix anything except to resuscitate people who have overdosed AT the safe injection site with a success rate of 100%.

    Yes, HIV rates went down when needle exchanges were introduced (except where they've gone up) but HIV rates nationwide (and Canada) had been on a downward trend since 1997. The cities where SIS are being introduced already have needle exchanges so how do you associate drops in overdose rates and HIV rates specifically to the SIS.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Further, while I do believe the statistics that show that crime doesn't go up after a SIS is introduced, those sites are usually placed in the worst neighborhoods already ravaged by drugs and crime. At that point, does it maintain the crime rate when it might have otherwise gone down? I think these questions are tough to answer and I don't look at a 20 year trend of declining HIV rates and point to the introduction of an SIS at the last third and get convinced that but for the SIS, HIV would have gone up.

    Then there are the thorny questions which can't be really answered empirically-- like those recovered addicts who say that the way an addict stops being an addict is to "hit rock bottom". That sustaining the addict at just above rock bottom might not actually help him.

    But sure, he's still alive and living in squalor. And hopefully HIV free.

  • Hank Phillips||

    The feds need ignorance as a screen from which to operate prohibitionist looting. If folks could see firsthand that LSD and cannibal saliva are essentially harmless, they'd also realize the government lies through its teeth. Also, the whole point of injecting dope is that being illegal makes it so expensive that the economics make it attractive. Journalist St John reported that before prohibition nobody bought Everclear. But after pseudoscience ushered in the weaponized war on beer, kids discovered 200-proof alcohol was easier to carry and hide.

  • Echospinner||

    So all of this emotional concern trolling from the president about drug addiction, HIV, criminal justice reform and all that is just a load of garbage after all. His Justice department keeps doing everything it can to prevent a realistic strategy aimed at reducing harm.

  • DenverJ||

    Sure sure, we all know how the Department of Justice is nothing if not loyal to Trump...

  • Echospinner||

    So it is just ineffective leadership? I can buy that.

  • Rossami||

    Interesting. How is pretty much every hospital, doctor's office or pharmaceutical factory not in violation of that "crack house statute"?

  • Bill Poser||

    What is the constitutional basis for the federal government's authority in this matter? It seems like drug use would be a police matter of exclusive state jurisdiction. Is this yet another example of alleged effects on interstate commerce?

  • Bill Poser||

    Trump would do a better job of preventing the spread of HIV if he were not a serial adulterer.

  • vek||

    Honestly, we should probably just start giving out endless, free heroin... Then 90% of junkies would just OD and we'd be done with this whole mess!

    I feel sorry for these bastards, and actually know somebody who died from an OD, and a closer friend who almost did... But the reality is a good chunk of these people are just damaged/fucked people who tend to never come out of this stuff.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online