In Philadelphia, Judges Rule Against Opening A Medical Site To Safely Inject Heroin

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Newly-elected state senator Nikil Saval spoke in support of opening a supervised injection site for opioid users in Philadelphia, during a rally outside the federal courthouse on Nov. 16, 2020.

Kimberly Paynter/WHYY


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Supporters of a safe injection site to prevent overdose deaths rallied outside a federal court hearing on Sept. 5, 2019 in Philadelphia. The nonprofit Safehouse was defending the idea, arguing that the proposal was about harm reduction and would not violate the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Kimberly Paynter/WHYY


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Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Supporters of a safe injection site to prevent overdose deaths rallied outside a federal court hearing on Sept. 5, 2019 in Philadelphia. The nonprofit Safehouse was defending the idea, arguing that the proposal was about harm reduction and would not violate the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Safehouse board vice president Ronda Goldfein said she was disappointed by the ruling, but that this would not be the end of the road for Safehouse.

«The opinion doesn’t change the science,» she says. «We have an evidence-based initiative that works, that’s still true. That law was not intended to force people to stand by idly while their brothers and sisters are dying.»

Safehouse will review its legal options, Goldfein says, to determine the best strategy to pursue before moving forward. But she says the Safehouse team is hopeful that the Justice Department under the Biden administration will be more favorable to their initiative. U.S. Attorney William McSwain is resigning January 22, a move that was expected as part of the transfer of power to the Biden administration.

As a U.S. Senator, Joe Biden was among the principal authors of the 1985 federal drug-crimes law, but in recent years has considerably shifted his stance on addiction and substance use. Biden has acknowledged that the law’s sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine led to racial injustices, and he introduced a new bill to eradicate the difference. Biden’s language about addiction has changed, too, especially in the context of his son Hunter’s struggle with it.

Still, Biden’s plan to end the opioid epidemic is light on harm reduction strategies: It makes only one mention of syringe exchanges, and no reference to supervised injection sites.

This story comes from NPR’s health reporting partnership with WHYY and Kaiser Health News.

  • Philadelphia federal appeals court
  • safe injection site
  • Safehouse
  • supervised injection site
  • harm reduction
  • opioid epidemic

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